A VISIT to OUR DATE GROWER
By SUE VIGNOLA
It’s a sweltering hot day in early October as we drive towards Jewel Dates, located in Thermal at the south end of the Coachella Valley in California’s interior. We’re a few minutes early for our appointment so I suggest we stop to take a few photos under one of the majestic date palms bordering the quiet road. Although most of these trees have already been picked for this year's harvest, as luck would have it there are a few dates still left here and there. As I carefully wipe off the dust from the plump fruit, I’m thinking that nothing can accurately describe the taste of a Medjool date warmed by the sun and picked fresh from the tree!
One of the best parts of our business is the annual trip to California when we visit our growers and get to sample “the best of the new crop.” For both Richard and me, visiting date plantations is always the highlight of our trip as there are few more exotic sights than acres upon acres of towering date plantations set between arid desert mountains under vivid California skies.
Greg Raumin of Jewel Dates awaits us in his office, trying to ignore the constantly ringing phone and give us his full attention. The plant is in full production at this time of year with the crop mostly picked and being processed for shipment all over the world. Greg escorts us through the busy processing floor, where we stop to take photos of the workers sizing Medjool dates being carried along the conveyor belt. It’s a bustle of activity with boxes of dates being filled, weighed and loaded onto pallets for removal to the refrigerated storage facility. We learn that the largely Mexican workforce have been regulars with Jewel Dates since the company started and earn above minimum wage salaries for their seasonal help with the date harvest.
Medjools are just one of the date varieties Jewel Dates offers but, along with Deglet Noor, definitely one of their top-sellers. For centuries, the Medjool date was considered the “king of the date world” and reserved exclusively for royalty and their lucky guests. Originally from Morocco, a blight in the 1920s threatened to make Medjools extinct. Hoping to prevent this potential catastrophe, the Moroccan royal family sent eleven plants to southern California, where the growing conditions were similar to their original habitat. Large, perfect and beautiful, California Medjools are descendants of those eleven original royal plants and are thriving.
Thriving they may be but Greg is quick to point out that, as with all agriculture, “There is a constant struggle with the elements and predators which can have a major effect on crop success.” It takes seven years for a tree to reach maturity and start producing fruit and roughly 30 years when they start to exhaust their supply. Greg informs us that most date growers supplement their income with the sale of date palms: “Date palms are very popular with landscapers and they’re used to enhance resorts, businesses and private residences all over the southern United States.” Greg goes on to say: “We're careful with monitoring the sale of trees to landscapers and we have a very aggressive replanting program. Often we replant three trees for every one removed.”
The sale of date palms is just one of the ways date growers can keep afloat in a highly specialized market impacted by the effects of globalization. Greg: “We’re constantly researching ways to develop niche products for niche markets. Among these are European importers for whom we custom-pack attractive boxes of dates in all sizes.” Another niche market Jewel Dates has quickly tapped into is the flourishing organics industry. Approximately 70% of Jewel Dates’ production is organic and they are one of the main suppliers of organic date products to natural foods distributors in the Pacific Northwest.
Over lunch in the spacious dining room of the Landmark Golf Club, with a view of the appropriately-named Chocolate Mountains in the distance, Greg tells us more about the history of Jewel Dates. Originally from a potato-farming family in the Mid-West, Greg’s early business career was in the banking industry. The desire to have another stab at agriculture brought Greg to the Coachella Valley seven years ago where, with the backing of business investors, Jewel Dates was born. Jewel Dates production plant encompasses some 50,000 square feet with a permanent workforce of approximately 50 which swells to 80 or so during peak production. They currently maintain over 300 acres of date groves and have a number of growers on contract comprised mostly of small, organic family farms roughly five acres in size.
After lunch Greg takes us on a mini-tour of some of Jewel Dates’ groves where we have another opportunity to sample a few stray dates left behind after the last picking. As we stand nibbling under the shade of a date palm, Greg describes the different date varieties, their production and harvesting methods. The most popular dates are Deglet Noor, a semi-dry variety which are stored in their natural state then rehydrated through steaming prior to shipping. Because of their relatively low moisture content, Deglets are the most "shelf-stable" of all date varieties. During their growth sugar levels are monitored and, when at the correct level, are harvested in one picking.
This is not the case with Medjools where dates from the same palm ripen at different stages, requiring three to four pickings over several weeks (mid-September to early October). Medjools also require very special care once they reach the sorting rooms. There they undergo meticulous sorting and rubbing between soft terry cloths to remove dust and debris and bring out their beautiful translucent shine. A “soft” date, Medjools require no rehydration but must be stored and shipped refrigerated due to their moisture content.
Barhis are first picked in their unripe, yellow stage in early August as their main market is with customers of Middle Eastern descent where these crunchy, slightly bitter dates are a favourite with strong black coffee. The next picking comes in October, when the rest of the Barhi date palms are harvested. At this stage Barhi dates are brown, very soft and their delicate skin easily broken. At the plant they are meticulously sorted and packed in 5-lb and 12-lb cartons and chilled so they can be safely shipped. Most commodity brokers shun Barhi dates as they require too much special handling. Rancho Vignola is the only importer of Barhi dates in Canada.
Date palms can grow more than 50 feet in height and in the early days of California’s date industry wooden ladders were attached to each palm tree so workers could do the "hands-on" labour required. Nowadays, it's mostly trucks with hydraulic lifts being used instead of ladders but the process is basically the same and manual labour still predominant. Date palms are manually pollinated in the spring and in mid-summer the vines are wrapped into a "cone" shape with waxy brown paper to protect the fruit from the few rainfalls that can occur early in the growing season. Organic growers use a muslin bag closed at both ends to prevent insect infestations.
Back at the office, Greg introduces us to his business partner and spouse, Heather, who is looking radiant and round in her ninth month of pregnancy.* Heather is busy talking with long-time staff member Maddy but takes a few minutes to chat with us. More photos around the office and it's already time to make our goodbyes, satisfied and impressed with our day at Jewel Dates. As we drive away from the plant, the date plantations are shimmering in the late afternoon heat and we're filled with gratitude for the opportunity to visit this exotic locale and learn more fascinating facts about dates… the “jewels of the desert.”
*Footnote: Greg and Heather’s son Sam was born last October shortly after our visit… cute and healthy, and as sweet as a Jewel date!