I will never ever ever ever complain about the price of dates again.
If I do, I will never be allowed to eat another date, and since this is in writing I expect you to hold me to it. If I have a date two inches from my mouth and I say “these are delicious, but boy are they expen….” you have my full permission to grab that date and refuse to let me have it, or any other. You can even eat it right in front of me and I will have no choice but to sit there and watch you enjoy it.
You see, I’ve now learned about the work that goes into producing that fine plump sweet nature’s candy, and it is worth every penny. Plant bananas and you’ll have to wait nine months. You can plant grapes and have wine in as little as three years. But dates? Nels and Martha Rogers had to wait almost a decade before their first harvest.
The couple owns Martha’s Gardens, one of the few date farms that’s family-owned. In 1990 they cleared some unused desert, created an irrigation system, and planted their first 300 Medjool palm offshoots on a mesa overlooking the Gila River. Their first harvest wasn’t until 1999. Talk about delayed gratification.
We learned all about the Rogers and their dates on a tour around the gardens. True confession time: when we were invited to take the tour I thought “OK,” but I wasn’t jumping with anticipation. I figured it would be interesting. I didn’t figure it would be one of my favorite memories from the entire road trip.
After our tour of Casa de Coronado Museum with Yvonne we almost missed it. We arrived just as the tour was getting ready to start, so we raced over to the tram and jumped in. For the next hour and a half, under sunny blue Yuma skies, we learned about the lengthy and involved process required to cultivate this ancient food.
Date palms have been feeding humans for longer than any other fruit, but they’re not native to the Americas. They were brought here in the early 1900s, and the medjool specifically in 1927 because it was dying in Morocco. A disease called bayoud threatened to wipe them out, so an American by the name of Dr. Walter Swingle brought eleven healthy offshoots to Nevada, where they were quarantined to make sure there was no disease. Nine survived (two were dug up by a dog) and were moved to Indio, California, where they thrived. Since the main method of date palm propagation is to cull the shoots from the mother plant, the trees in Martha’s Gardens can be directly traced back to the original in Morocco.
So how do you grow a date? Well, let me tell you, it is not for the impatient. If you’re even slightly inclined towards instant gratification, date farming is not your calling.
The first step is to remove the thorns from the trees. These aren’t cute little rose thorns; these thorns are five or six inches and can puncture a tire. Step on one and you’ll have a “date” with the emergency room. The prickers are shaved off, a tree at a time. With nearly 8000 date palms this process takes seven to ten people about two months.
After that’s done they can start thinking about growing. The process starts by hand-pollinating each strand individually. Workers get the pollen from the male trees and manually apply them to the female trees. Then, after they’ve had a chance to grow, they’re thinned. Just like growing grapes for wine, thinning the fruit enables the dates to grow bigger and more flavorful. As the strands grow heavier, they attach twine to train them to grow in the direction they want. The thinning continues. Our tour guide Chris told us that there’s a group of ladies who return every year from Mexico, and all day long they’ll twist and drop and it sounds like it’s raining.
A metal ring is put on every fruit arm – again, manually – to ensure there’s enough space for growth. They put a sleeve over each strand to offer protection from the birds. At first the sleeves are open at the bottom so any rotten fruit will drop out, but when it’s time to harvest the workers will close the sleeves to catch the fruit, pull them off, and empty them, and then repeat the process over the next few days until the harvest is over. Chris said it takes about four times around the farm to complete the harvest.
Then the dates are washed, manually sorted for quality and size, and packaged.
It’s an intense, back-breaking, laborious process that’s been going on for about 4,000 years.
Next time you go to the store you won’t wonder why in the world that package of Medjools is so expensive, you’ll wonder why it doesn’t cost more.
After the tour we briefly sat down with Nels and Martha. While we sipped on one of their insanely popular (400 – 500 per day!) date shakes, he told us a little bit more about their farm. They live on the property and his mom was born in Yuma in 1925. In fact, the Lutes are his cousins and we learned from Nels that not only was his uncle the owner of Lutes Casino, he was also known as “The Marrying Judge.” Hollywood couples would fly into Yuma to get married because there was no waiting period, and R.H. would perform the ceremony at the Lutes’ Gretna Wedding Chapel. When blood tests were required in 1956, they added a serology lab. They ended up marrying over 60,000 couples, including Charlie Chaplin and Betty Davis (although not to each other).
We would have loved to hear more, but we had four more stops that day and were already running late for the next one. We took our dates, our shakes, and our newfound appreciation and left for lunch at The Garden Cafe.
This is part of our EPIC Southwest USA road trip from the Chicago-area to San Diego and back!
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