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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: California Dates

By Jim Bishop for Let's Talk Plants! November 2021.

Recently harvested Medjool Dates near Blythe, California.

In a previous article in 2018, Road to Marrakech, I told the story of how dates are grown in Morocco.

A plethora of dates varieties at the market in Fez.
Date and olive groves surrounding a Kasbah in rural Morocco.
Traditional Moroccan desert - Dates and slightly sweet treats.

In October 2021, we visited a more local source of dates on the Colorado River and learned our dates are grown there. The dates grown here, Phoenix dactyifera, are an ancient crop dating to back to the early civilizations of Northern Africa and the Middle East ... like Babylon and the Egyptians of the Nile. There are a number of varieties of cultivated dates, but the most popular is the large and juicy (when fresh) Medjool date. However, don't be tempted to plant a date pit thinking you will be able to grow your own. Dates take around 7 years before producing fruit, and whether the plant will produce palatable fruit won't be known until then. Instead dates are grown from clones - sports that grow at the base of older palm trunks that will produce fruit identical to the parent tree.

Moving Water Around -

Like so many other California stories, this one involves water. Scott's brother Steve Borden, purchased farmland near Blythe about 10 years ago. The land included water rights to Colorado River water dating back over a century. In 1877, San Francisco investor Thomas Blythe filed a claim to use water from the Colorado River for farming, mining and other purposes. It was the first claim in California, giving the valley the oldest rights to the river in the state and a privileged first-priority position among water districts. The valley is relatively level - approximately 9 miles wide, 30 miles long and varying in elevation from about 290 feet at the northern end to about 220 feet at the southern end. The soils are alluvial in nature, laid down by Colorado River floods, and range in texture of fine grain clays to silty loams to light sandy soils, with the predominant soil being a sandy loam. At the north end of the valley, the Palo Verde Diversion Dam slices off part of the Colorado River and sends the water coursing through canals to fields.

The Colorado River above the diversion dam. This area is popular with houseboats, pontoon boats, and jet skis.
Diversion Dam on the Colorado feeding the canals of Palo Verde.
One of the larger canals feeding the Imperial Valley.
Diversion gate from main canal.
Canal adjacent to Steve's property.

The date farm we visited in Morocco also had water rights, but these went back many centuries using ancient means of irrigation. Three families shared diverted water for fixed hours of the day during which they were entitled to eight hours of water. The water was diverted towards or away from each farm by digging out or filling in ditches by hand using shovels to block or open up the water flow.

Ancient Moroccan irrigation of hand dug ditches still used today.

Some of the artwork and structures at Steve's farm pays homage to older ways water was distributed from the Colorado River.

Windmill pump, water tower and water wagon.
Old wellhead, and water wagons.

Today however, water to the palms is distributed via pumps, filtered to removed sand and silt, and fed to individual palms via drip irrigation. The porous sandy silt soil, allows any excess irrigation to drain back into the water table surrounding the Colorado River.

Complicated pumping system.

Steve explained the various hoses, pumps, and filtration systems used to move water from the canal and aquifer to the palms.

The Dates -

Due to the relatively inexpensive, if not free, water from the Colorado, most of the farming in the area is high water usage crops like alfalfa, hay and cotton. However, Steve planted date palms which are more common further south along the river and in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs. The dates trees are now large enough to start producing dates.

Unplanted desert just above the palm groves.
Date Palms in 2016, shortly after planting.
Same grove as previous photo in 2021.
More recently planted palms started from offshoots of existing trees.

After the trees bloom and have been pollinated by bees, the ripening dates are covered with white netting to protect the fruit from the sun and birds. Bagged, ripening dates. All of the dates in the bag do not ripen at the same time. During harvesting season in the fall, the lower end of the bag is untied and ripe fruit is shaken into a large, circular woven tray. The whole process seems unchanged since the time of the Pharaohs.

Video of harvesting dates:

After harvesting the dates are placed on packing trays and sorted by level of ripeness then placed in the sun for further ripening.

Dates, ripening and drying in the sun.
Fresh harvested dates showing various levels of ripeness.
Fully ripe dates.

Interestingly, the dates are at their peak sweetness and juiciness just after turning brown. However, packers want a drier fruit. The skin and fruit of juicy dates is easily damaged during further packing and shipping. Damaged fruit does not sell, so the dates are dried further. When the dates have sufficiently dried they are placed in cold storage before being transported to local packing house.

Dates in cold storage.
Notice on cold storage door.

Maintenance -

During the off season the palms trees required some maintenance. Machetes are used to remove the long spines that grow on the sides of the palm fronds. These spines could easily injury a worker. Older dead and dried fronds are also removed.

Palm showing spines on new fronds and older fronds with the spines removed.

The palms continuously produce new pups at the base of their trunks. These can be removed and replanted to create new groves. However, eventually enough is enough and they are simply composted.

Pups on the side of a palm trunk.

Occasionally, palms sprout new trunks higher up in the tree. These too must be removed, but unlike the basal pups, will not root so can't be replanted.

Branching on the side of the main trunk that will be removed.

Unfortunately, the future of date farming in California is uncertain for several reasons. Besides the growth of cities into the desert, demand for water, climate change, and labor shortages - susceptibility to the South American palm weevil, Rhynchophorus palmarum, is unknown. The snout weevil is quickly killing all of the date palm's cousin, Phoenix canariensis in Southern California. Treatment isn't easy, if not impossible, but involves systemic pesticides which would likely make the dates unmarketable.

2 inch long adult female Southern American Palm Weevil found in our home courtyard.

Solar Harvesting -

In addition to harvesting dates, the farm also has several large solar arrays. The solar produced electricity is used to run the water pumps and various other electrical equipment. Excess power is delivered back to the grid and supplied to other users in Southern California. However, Southern California Edison only pays for some of the power. Beyond a set number of kilowatt hours, the bill simply reads "Over Production" and they take the power for free.

A couple of the solar arrays with Steve and Scott.
Recording solar production and usage.

Miscellaneous -

Scott feeding fish in the pond. It also draws lots of local wildlife.
Desert Landscaping and storm clouds.
Cactus bloom.

Relatives by appointment.


PastPresident, Jim Bishop, is the current publicity chairperson on the Board of the San Diego Horticultural Society and he was the 2019-2020 SDHS Horticulturist of the Year among many, many other things.


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