When we planned our stay for a week in March, we never thought the temperature in Yuma, Arizona would climb to 95 degrees.
When the sun set that day it was with some relief.
We were up and ready to go the next morning to chase down a date. A medjool date, that is. We tried to make a reservation for a tour at Martha’s Gardens Medjool Date Farm on the phone (unsuccessfully) and then tried to drive there using the directions on their website (unsuccessfully). We finally made it there just as the 10:30AM tour was set to depart. Luck was with us: the tour start had been delayed that day, and they made room for us after all, even though we had no reservation.
Actually, we had no idea what we were about to see. Don’t the palms produce dates, laborers pick them, then we buy and eat them?
It was a surprise to us that farming medjool dates requires a lot of intensive work.
First off, our guide, Chris, showed us a male date palm…
…and female date palms. One male date palm can pollinate 50 female date palms. This is just about the number of trees that fit into one acre of farmland.
It takes 8-10 years for a date palm to start to produce fruit, but the tree can live many years. The problem for the farmer is that the tree continues to grow each year, and there is a limit as to the height anyone would want to go up to pick the dates. At Martha’s Gardens they wouldn’t pick a tree higher than 75’ (and that’s really pushing it).
They rely on the most efficient way to pollinate the female flowers. A farmer ties the strings together and then sprays them with some male pollen.
At this point we assumed the work for the farmer ended, but it had just begun. The date palms are watered twice a day. Farmers remove the new growth thorns. (Prickly work!) The pollinated strings are eventually thinned to a group of 20 strands. Later they’ll train the fruit arms to bend down and out for easier picking. By summertime, workers thin the fruit nubs to 1.5” spacing.
A month before harvest the dark green fruits turn yellow. Net bags are placed over the fruit arm to protect the dates from birds and to catch any ripe fruit that drops off.
The harvesting, washing, and sorting of the dates are a huge production. We were astounded how much labor went into producing that little bag of dates we bought at the end of the tour.
We wandered outside the store photographing wildflowers nearby and discovered some dates still on the palms from the last harvest. The real thing.
Beth ordered a date shake and took a long sip. Excellent! Bon appetit.