January 11, 2008

A Date to Remember

CUESA volunteer Shannon Donahue wrote this week’s feature.

datesThe date is the fruit of the date palm tree, Phoenix dactylifera. Dates are drupes, a type of fruit in which an outer fleshy part surrounds a “pit” of hardened endocarp with a seed inside. While not widely consumed in the United States, dates are a staple food in the desert regions of North Africa and the Middle East. Major date-producing countries include Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Date cultivation began in prehistoric times, as evidenced by frequent depictions of the date palm in Egyptian and Mesopotamian carvings. Date palms thrive in hot, dry climates, and just a few places in North America provide the optimal growing conditions for the palms, among them La Purisima and Baja California, Mexico; Yuma and Dateland, Arizona; and Thermal, California.

At Flying Disc Ranch in Thermal, Robert Lower and Christina Kelso grow twelve date varietals. Their farming style, which they term ‘eco-safe biodynamic,’ is a combination of indigenous and intensive cultivation practices. Both Robert and Christina cite multiple inspirations that influenced their farming styles. Robert grew up in Santa Barbara, where he tended his parents’ orchards and gardens, and traveled throughout Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, and Baja California, Mexico – all major date-producing regions. Christina, once a Bay Area denizen, was inspired by visionary farmers such as Nan Ullrike Koehler of Rainbow’s End Farm and Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm to follow her heart to farming.

Robert LowerRobert purchased the eleven-acre farm in 1979, when the land was little more than raw, hilly desert with native plants. After nearly 30 years of careful cultivation, some of the farm’s 400 palms are 24 feet tall. When tended correctly, date palms produce prolific quantities of fruit: one Flying Disc Ranch palm may yield 1,200 pounds of dates in a single growing season! Robert and Christina credit this productivity to their unique farming style.

Every farm faces distinctive challenges based on its location, soil composition, and crop types. Robert and Christina contend with sandy soil, an arid climate, and a high average temperature. Although date palms thrive in dry climates, they need water to produce fruit. Robert and Christina mitigate the Coachella Valley’s heat and aridity through their adherence to permaculture, a perennial agricultural system based on the composition and interrelationships found in natural ecologies. At Flying Disc Ranch, citrus fruits, such as grapefruits and oranges, are grown to complement the dates. The farm is also home to an array of wildlife, including sidewinders, roadrunners, owls, rabbits, bees, falcons, bats, and hawks.

Today, as they have been for thousands of years, dates are enjoyed raw or as an ingredient in sweet and savory dishes the world over. Robert enjoys his dates with cream. I’ve been known to stuff a Barhi inside of a Medjool. However you eat your dates, you won’t be disappointed! Though Flying Disc Ranch is more than 500 miles away from the market, they don’t have to make the trek every week–instead their crop is stored locally, cutting down the food miles considerably. Flying Disc Ranch harvests in the fall and into the early days of winter, and their dates are available throughout the year at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Robert Lower participated in CUESA’s Meet the Famer program in 2007. Click here to download an mp3 of the interview >

Try a recipe for Date Pinwheel Cookies >

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »