Before all the windmill tours, poolside parties, and bracelets-wearing festival-goers arrived, the impossibly dry and strikingly beautiful Coachella Valley caught the eye of a guy. very different visitors: pioneers and farmers who imagined acres and acres bordered by date palms.
They didn’t come to the valley on a whim. At the end of the 19th century, the Department of Agriculture initiated a program of men who scoured the world in search of new crops to bring back to the United States. Botanists traveled to the Middle East and North Africa to study the cultivation of date palms and concluded that the arid and arid lands of the Coachella Valley could be the perfect place to nurture date palms. Commercial groves were created a few years later.
“Dates are the next profitable crop of California fruit,” George Wharton James, Coachella Valley grower and historian, noted in a 1912 pamphlet on growing dates. “Someone is going to make a lot of money over the next undated years. WHY NOT SECURE YOUR SHARE? “
The cultivation of dates predates the history books, but the date palm appears to be indigenous to the Middle East. In her book “The Date Palm: Bread of the Desert”, Hilda Simon writes about an ancient Islamic tale in which Adam buried hair and nail clippings in the ground and, “immediately he sprang from this place in the garden [of Eden] an adult palm, loaded with bunches of ripe and delicious dates. To this day, the fruit continues to play an important role in Islamic culture and cuisine. Dates are also widely cultivated in North Africa, where date palm shoots (the “children” or new shoots that grow on the main tree) were purchased and first transported to the Coachella Valley there. is over 100 years old.
Despite this rich history and tradition, dates seem to be underestimated in the United States. But anyone who has experienced the caramel flair of Halawy, the sweet nutty Zahidi, or the soft, chewy qualities of Medjool know better.
The firm, meaty texture of a date like Deglet Noor makes them perfect for stews and embers. In salads, some dates can offer a contrasting crunch in a bowl of delicate greenery; other softer varieties go well in an already crunchy coleslaw. Some dates are excellent, as is, for snacks or with cheese. Dates can transform lemon bars – and do we even have to remind you of the heartwarming qualities of date shakes?
Their distinctive flavors and stories provide a timeline that spans thousands of years, but you can make the trip to Coachella Valley in just a few hours.
California produces 90% of all dates in the United States and most of them come from the Coachella Valley. According to the Agriculture Marketing Resource Center, in 2020 the Golden State produced 49,300 tonnes of dates (on 12,500 acres) and the harvest was valued at $ 114 million.
Sam Cobb, who grows some of these dates on his farms in Desert Hot Springs and Blythe, Calif., Says he can trace his earliest memory of eating a date – a Deglet Noor – at Christmas as a child. Cobb, 59, didn’t like them at first, but after several tastes he concluded, “Hey, they’re pretty good.”
He grew up in the Fresno area and says he knew at age 3 that he “was born to be a farmer,” adding, “like Superman, the green crystal [of farming] was calling. In 1982 he started growing everything from radishes to watermelons. After a few years, he went to work in the US Department of Agriculture. Eventually he moved his family to La Quinta, and in 2002 he decided to get back to farming, but this time around it would be dates. To this day, he says he is “perhaps the only black date farmer in California.”
On a sweltering July afternoon, Cobb compared his previous farming businesses to the dates he now grows: “It takes 21 days to grow a radish, and it takes 21 years for a date palm to grow. [to maturity]. “Cultivating dates, it seems, is a long-term commitment.
He operates a seasonal weekend market in Desert Hot Springs, selling his freshly picked dates starting in October. In addition to growing date palms for fruit, Cobb, like many date palm growers, sells them as ornamental palms. A lucrative side business, they can cost around $ 2,000 a tree.
Dates can be sweet and versatile, and date shakes can quench your thirst, but all this deliciousness gives no indication of the work involved in the cultivation.
Farmers almost always grow new date palms from offshoots that develop from buds at the base of the mother plant. It takes too long to start from the seed, and using the offspring ensures a certain homogeneity of the product.
But the fruit does not appear immediately. It can take several years for a bud to develop with its own roots and grow enough to separate it from the mother plant. And those newly planted offshoots and mother palms require year round attention – and water. Cobb estimates that “each mature date palm needs about 2 acre-inches of water per year to produce a date crop, which works out to 54,300 gallons of water per tree per year.” (Some farms are dependent on flooding; others, like Woodspur Farms, the largest organic date farm in the United States, are adopting drip irrigation.)
Depending on the variety and health of the tree, a well-watered date palm can grow to 75 to 100 feet; they can produce fruit economically for about 40 to 50 years and can live for 120 to 150 years. In the middle of summer before they are harvested, dates are already very attractive to birds and insects, and farmers need to pack the growing fruit clusters.
Date lovers sometimes like to talk about the sex life of date palms, although the process of spring pollination – sometimes done by hand – probably doesn’t seem particularly glamorous to workers who are high in the air, maneuvering the fronds to dust. the pollen of one tree on the flowers of another. Date palms are dioecious, meaning the trees are either male or female – females are treated with pollen from male plants. After pollination, dates – small and green at first – begin to grow until they reach maturity. The harvest usually takes place from late August to October.
Some farmers sell locally; others opt for online sales and farmers’ markets – or all three. Joan Smith of Rancho Meladuco, located at the north end of the Salton Sea, sells in a brick and mortar store in Newport Beach.
Of course, not all date palms are created equal, and farmers naturally have strong opinions about their products. Robert Lower from Flying disc ranch in Thermal, Calif., operates a biodynamic farm. Its groves are rare among small producers because its date palms mingle with hundreds of trees that grow citrus, pomegranate, fig, avocado and other fruits. He prefers Barhi dates to the ubiquitous Medjools (although he grows both – and other varieties).
Lower has 500 Barhi date palms and says they could be the future of the date industry.
“I never really liked [growing] Medjools. I felt like they were overrated, ”says Lower. “They grow fast, but the Barhi produces twice as much.”
Do they taste like butterscotch? Coconut? Now is the time of year to find out and a trip to Coachella Valley or to the Farmers’ Market might answer that question.