Monday, 01 February 2010 00:00    E-mail
Make it a date - Yuma’s environs offer organic date farms for agri-tourists

By Theodore G. Manno, Ph.D 18-EO-Dates.pdf Download this article:

A winding road takes me through the river bend area in my hometown of Yuma, Ariz., past the Territorial Prison and down a one-lane bridge across the meandering Colorado River.

For about a mile after the river, California is to my left and Arizona is to my right, reflecting the results of a border dispute after the river changed its course. Eventually, California takes over to reveal a desolate, rural road through agricultural territory. Another 10 minutes, and the signs begin.  “Date shakes.” “Fresh Medjools.”

Date5-web4California’s Bard Valley is a leader in the production of dates—oval-shaped, 3-7 cm long, deeply colored, single-seeded fruits of date palm trees.

Now known mostly for being chopped in cereals, dates are the earliest known cultivated fruit and have a long history as a staple food for ancient cultures, originating in the Persian Gulf and Arabia c. 6000 BCE.

Once reserved by Moroccans for royalty and their guests, their traditional use continues as a fundamental crop in the Middle East and Africa, and as a first meal aside yogurt when the sun sets during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The hallmark of the Bard Valley is the “Medjool” (muj-hool) date, prized as the “king of dates” for its large size and sweet, chewy texture.

With a name meaning “unknown” because farming pioneers did not know the species, the current scientific name Phoenix coincides with the mythical Greek bird and reflects life-giving status, along with advertising a major city featuring access to the area.

Date2-web4Many date farms post retail stores and farm tours that promote the Medjools, and an exit off the first interchange in California on I-8 is an educational and recreational experience.  But the signs advertising the shops are not the only decorations adorning the highway. As you approach the tall, date-yielding palm trees towering into the big sky, low-lying signs by the road preach “no pesticides” and “organic growing.”

Indeed, the Medjool is picked fresh and delivered rather than undergoing drying or further processing. The ability to produce profitable yet environmentally sustainable yield is a tribute to the experience of growers like Glen Vandervoort, who has seen the Medjool go from niche crop to mainstream fruit while growing organically in California and Yuma for more than two decades.  He and other growers in the Bard Valley Date Growers Association, a farmer’s cooperative formed in 1986, produce about 70 percent of all Medjools grown in the United States.

“Many of the local farms are organic,” Vandervoort said, “no pesticides are sprayed on the fruit or trees.”

In addition to providing customers pesticide-free fruit, many growers in the area buy into “Datepac,” which is a modern consolidated packing house. The facility hosts one of the largest private solar electric generators in Arizona, refrains from using fumigant, recycles all of its used cardboard and ensures that culled dates are used for making mulch.

The minimization of environmental impact even extends to the laboriousness of growing and harvesting. Date palms can take four to seven years after planting before they bear fruit, and may not produce viable yields for commercial harvest for seven to 10 years.

In addition, trees do not ripen simultaneously, so several harvests are required. Instead of picking the ready dates and spraying the rest with pesticide, bunches of dates are “thinned” and remaining dates are bagged or covered for protection from unusual rain showers and pests as they grow larger. The tree must then be climbed several more times so that each fruit is picked individual by hand—a procedure that is required because of the softness and delicacy of the Medjool.

“The tying strings have all been changed from plastic bailer twines to sisal twines that break down in the soil,” Vandervoort said, “the fronds and fruit arms are also all shredded and returned to the soil.”

“We perform a different operation in the trees every three to six weeks, and some of the operations require two to four trips to the same tree. Growers are constantly looking for ways to eliminate trips up the tree.”

Those operations include pollinating trees manually after trimming dangerously sharp four- to five-inch long thorns. Although date palms are naturally pollinated by wind, this requires a much higher “male” to “female” tree ratio and serendipitous organization of trees in the field. “There is a big push for mechanization, but this is best done by hand operation,” Vandervoort said.  Amazingly, the wholesomeness of Medjools is unspoiled by the date palm’s status as an introduced species.

Dates were introduced into Mexico and California by Spaniards in the 18th century around the Mission San Ignacio, but it was not until 1927 that Medjools arrived in the Bard Valley from Morrocco via an American horticulturalist. Many descendants of a few pioneer trees are now the source of the Bard Valley’s entire Medjool crop, with some of the original trees still being harvested.

With so much controversy and environmental harm typically associated with introduced species, the introduction of Medjools to the Southwestern United States is an unusual example of an introduced species that has assimilated into the ecology and provided a sustainable industry with minimal negative environmental impact.

Dates1-web4hAs I drive down SR-24 further, the Imperial Date Gardens comes up on my left. Nurtured by immigrant Isabel Nunez, who worked the farms and eventually became a landowner and prominent local businessman, the Imperial Date Gardens is my opportunity to experience the diversity of uses for Medjools.

The shelves are full with not only 1- to 3-pound bags of Medjools, but a host of other products—date bread, date candy, date cake, date butter, chopped dates, dates with nuts, cream cheese dates, candy-filled dates and so forth. It’s not long before the person behind the counter attends to me.  “Do you need a date shake?”

“Date shakes” are perhaps the most charismatic Medjool product and they have such a fervent following that people actually do speak in terms of “needing” them. Apparently started in the 1930s when a grower mixed dates with vanilla ice cream, date shakes are “the thing” for tourists and locals alike on the Bard Valley date trail.

“I have one every week,” said Anita Marquez, a postal worker from Somerton, Ariz., while sipping a large shake. “Now I’m making my own with the Medjools and ice cream in a blender at home.”

Besides tasting good with ice cream, Medjools have gained widespread popularity because of their nutritional value, specifically high potassium, fiber and antioxidant levels.

With easy portability, they are making ground with American city dwellers who have access to them in the banana section of their local major supermarket. Studies show that dates sell up to 300 percent better next to bananas.

But compared with picking a box off the shelf, the value of a trip down “Medjool Lane” is considerable because the path of a piece of fruit from the field to your table looses abstraction.

After a trip to Bard Valley, a person returns to Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas or San Diego with their 1-pound bag of Medjools, bites into a plump one and conjures up an image of hard-working growers, making calculated decisions and climbing trees in the Southwestern heat, all in a concerted attempt to provide us with the highest quality organic dates.

For more information about Imperial Date Gardens, or to place an order, see www.nvo.com/imperialdate, or call 800-301-9349.

Directions to Bard Valley Date Country

From the west or east, take I-8 to exit 172 (right at the Colorado River). Continue on to Winterhaven Drive for half a mile and then turn left on SR-24 (Picacho Road).

After 3.5 miles, turn right to stay on SR-24 as it becomes W. Ross Road. Date farms will start appearing after about three miles and can be easily navigated with the few rural roads in the area.

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Try these awesome date recipes

Lowfat Date Shakes Ingredients:

10 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped thoroughly

1 cup skim milk

2 cups vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt Place dates and milk in a blender and blend on high until smooth.

Add ice cream and blend another 15-20 seconds on low until thick and frothy.

Honey Date Nut Bread Ingredients:

11/2 cups cut-up dates

1 cup boiling water

2 tbsp. butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup honey

3 cups flour

3 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1 egg (beaten)

1/2 cup walnuts (chopped)

Combine first 5 ingredients. Let cool. Sift dry ingredients. Add egg to cooled date mix, then stir in dry ingredients and nuts.  Bake in a loaf pan at 350° for 55 to 65 minutes.

Southwestern Cheesy Tortilla Dates Ingredients:

1-1 lb bag Medjool dates

1-10 oz. (1/2 pt.) jar of pepper jam (if unavailable, another flavor jam of your choice will work)

1 lb. cream cheese (softened)

lb bag tortilla chips

Blend cream cheese and jam well with medium speed electric mixer. Cut dates halfway through in a lengthwise fashion.

Stuff dates with cream cheese and jam mixture and place in center of large plate, on top of any extra mixture.  Place tortilla chips around the edge of the plate and dip into cream cheese and jam mixture as need. Serves 4.

Dried Fruit Bars Ingredients:

1 pound dried apricots

1/2 pound dried figs

1/2 pound pitted dates

1/2 pound currants

2 cups chopped walnuts

1/2 cup dried unsweetened coconut

1 tbsp. grated orange rind

Lightly butter a baking dish (the size depends on how thick you prefer bars.) Put apricots, figs and dates through grinder.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.

Press into prepared dish.

Chill several hours before cutting.  Bars can be coated with toasted sesame seed if desired.

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