INDIO, Calif. — From a certain vantage point on Arthur Futterman’s date farm, Shulem Ekstein can see palm trees in every direction. Mr. Ekstein has been to many of these farms, waiting at the gate in his black three-piece suit, his prayer shawl poking out from underneath his vest.
For each of the last seven years, Mr. Ekstein has traveled from Kiryas Joel, a tightly knit Orthodox enclave northwest of New York City, to ask the farmers in the California desert if he could please buy the inner palm fronds of their trees. Thousands of Jews, he will explain, will soon be looking to use those sort of fronds as a religious ritual object to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.
“I explain to them it doesn’t hurt the trees, it helps them,” said Mr. Ekstein, 27, his voice thick with a Yiddish accent, as he reached through a tree to clip one out. “It just takes a minute or less to cut them, not complicated.”
During the holiday, which begins next Wednesday evening and lasts for a week, religious Jews are required to hold the frond — called a lulav in Hebrew — along with a willow and myrtle branches and a citron fruit each day while reciting a prayer.
The palms are most abundant in the Middle East — the vast majority of the roughly 500,000 used in the United States are imported from Israel and Egypt. But this year, Egypt has apparently held back from exporting the fronds, sending a wave of panic about a potential lulav shortage through the small circle of businessmen who distribute and sell them in the United States.
“We rely way too much on other countries,” said Levi Zagelbaum, who distributes them from Brooklyn all over the country. “We shouldn’t allow this to happen again. But people have to understand that was our cheapest source.”
The lulav industry, such as it is, relies primarily on longstanding connections, with the largest suppliers closely guarding their source of the palm fronds. Mr. Zagelbaum said consumers would have to pay $10 more this year for the palm fronds, which are typically sold with the other symbolic plants for anywhere from $50 to $300.
Mr. Ekstein does not worry about any of that. Thanks to the farmers here, he has his own small but steady supply of American-grown palm fronds. A member of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic sect, which believes the state of Israel should be created only by God, Mr. Ekstein does not buy religious items from Israel. The fronds from Egypt, he said, are inferior to the varieties he can procure here. In his community, nobody will blanch at paying $70 or $80 for the palm frond alone.
“We want the strongest, the most beautiful, the straightest,” he said. “Everyone wants the nicest ones, but most people have no idea where theirs came from. We know.”