Dateless period just right for lulavs

TECOPA, Calif. -- The margins are thin and seasonal in the date farming business, so Brian Brown is always searching for new ways to squeeze extra revenue from his spring-fed oasis 80 miles west of Las Vegas.

His latest money maker began with a random phone call from a rabbi several years ago.

"This is Abraham Horowitz from Brooklyn, New York," said the voice on the other end of the line. "Have you ever heard of a lulav?"

Brown hadn't, but he knows plenty about them now.

For example, he knows a lulav is a Jewish term for the stock of new growth at the center of a palm tree. And he knows the most sought after ones come from dayri palms, a tree native to Iraq and one of about 20 varieties of date palms Brown cultivates.

"Basically, it's the unopened new leaf," he said.

Brown ended up going into business with a different rabbi, this one from New Jersey. For the past few years, he has been harvesting and selling lulavs to the man for $10 apiece.

"It's an industry that lasts about one month. It's a frenzy," Brown said.

The lulav is used during Sukkot, a seven-day festival that commemorates the Biblical period during which the Israelites wandered the desert and lived in temporary shelters.

The holiday begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, usually in late September or early October.

Brown, who jokingly calls himself a "recovering Catholic," said the lulavs are supposed to be of a certain size and quality.

After they are cut, the stalks are sprayed with a plant preservative and kept in a walk-in cooler until the rabbi arrives to pick them up in person.

Brown already has harvested dozens of the stalks, and he expects his trees to produce more of them for the rabbi over the next few weeks.

"He'll end up with around 100 lulavs, and I'll end up with about 1,000 bucks."

Every little bit helps.

During the lean summer months, Brown used to bring in as much as $50,000 by selling young palm trees to landscapers. Then the housing market crashed in Las Vegas and Pahrump, and the tree sales abruptly stopped.

"It's really knocked us in the head financially," Brown said.

Obviously, supplying Sukkot celebrants hasn't completely filled the void, but Brown said the lulavs are easy to collect and don't hurt his trees in the slightest.

"If I could get lulavs off all these trees, I'd stop growing dates," he said.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350.