With about 7,500 acres of Medjool dates now grown in Yuma Valley, Arizona, neighboring Bard Valley, California, and northern Sonora, Mexico, Martha’s Garden Date Farm in Yuma has lots of company. Martha’s Garden is a diverse operation combining wholesale, retail, Internet sales and farm tours luring Yuma’s winter visitors to the on-farm store. The family-owned and operated date farm was established by owners Nels and Martha Rogers in 1990 with 300 Medjool date shoots obtained from a date farm owned by Nels’ uncle.
They harvested their first crop in 1999 and primarily grow jumbo, large and extra fancy Medjool dates. Today, Martha’s Garden has about 8,000 date trees on 140 acres and harvested more than 500,000 pounds of dates last year. Martha’s Garden packs its own dates and develops its own marketing. Additional shoots are planted each year with increased production planned.
Now in its eighth year of operation, the store sells dates grown on the farm as well as a number of other items popular in the Southwest. These products include citrus, nuts, olive oil and cactus jelly. Sandwiches, soups and salads along with award-winning date shakes, are sold in a deli. A 90-minute farm tour is offered on a tractor-pulled wagon with cushioned seats. The tour includes an informative presentation about the history and growing of Medjool dates. Weekly tours average about 100 people.
In 2008, the Rogers’ oldest son Jason, a chiropractor in New York City, returned to the desert farm to help his father in a major real estate development project. Due to the downturned economy, the real estate project was put on hold. Jason, however, decided to stay and work with the date farm. He now works as operations manager.
“I grew up here and missed the desert,” he said.
Dates act as economy booster
Dates are a major contributor to the area’s economy, according to Dr. Glenn Wright, University of Arizona (UA) citrus and date palm specialist at the Yuma Agricultural Center. Date farming began in the Yuma area in the 1940s. Wright estimated that dates add an estimated $20 million to $30 million to the area’s economy. While Wright expects an expanding date industry in the area, establishing and expanding Medjool date growing is a difficult and expensive undertaking.
“Shoots are very costly, and growers tend to guard their shoots carefully,” Wright said.
“Dates are one of the very few crops in Arizona harvested in summer in our hottest weather,” Rogers said. Medjool dates are the premium variety of dates for eating, and Rogers noted that about 60 pounds of dates per person are eaten annually in the Middle East. Martha’s Garden dates are shipped across the nation and worldwide with Australia as its largest market.
Growing dates and growing business
“Dates need a lot of water,” Rogers said. Martha’s Garden uses drip irrigation with water from on-farm wells. The irrigation water is brought in through underground PVC pipes to risers, and flexible pipes carry it to the trees where bubblers are used. Trees are fertilized twice yearly with a composted chicken manure blend product purchased from a Phoenix supplier.
Date growing is labor intensive throughout the growing season. Pollen is collected in the spring from male trees and the pollen is applied to the buds on female trees, with both tasks completed by hand.
“The pods split into strands on the fruit arms, and every bud on every strand must be pollinated,” Rogers said.
After pollination, thinning is done to allow sufficient room for growth, and the branches are trained and tied with twine to grow upward and avoid random growth. Around July 1, separator rings are added between the strands and mesh bags are installed over the fruit. Bags are ordered from an Israeli firm and are either nylon or poly-cotton blend.
Rogers explained that the bags are left open at the bottom. If a windstorm comes up and whips off fruit, it will rot and damage fruit still growing in the bag.
“We expect to have about 100,000 bags,” he said. “With one pound each that would be a loss of about 100,000 pounds of fruit.”
The bags are closed at the beginning of August, or when the fruit has reached a stage that it will not rot and cause damage. Medjool dates proceed through four stages of ripening: kimri, green; khalal, yellow; rhutab, golden brown; and tamar, dark brown.
When the fruit is ready to harvest, the bottom of the bag is opened and pulled up, and the ripe fruit harvested. The bag is replaced, and harvesting is repeated in five to seven days. This process may be repeated four or five times to harvest dates at the proper stage of ripeness. Dates are harvested into a tarp circle and dumped into trays.
Pallets of trays are taken to the packing house where they are weighed. First sorting is done for dates that are too wet, too dry or have damage. Dates then go into a receiver where the dates are sprayed with water and tumbled over brushes. They are sorted by size, skin condition, moisture and color.
Rogers noted, “We looked into a mechanical sorter for size and skin, but they are very expensive, and we can’t justify the cost at this time.”
After harvest is complete, workers focus on irrigation equipment maintenance, pruning and removing thornes. Sharp knives are used to cut off thorns in strips to avoid injury to workers during harvest.
Although the labor-intensive crop requires seasonal workers, Martha’s Garden has had a dependable labor supply.
“About 90 percent of our workers return to us each year,” Rogers said.
Dates are packed mostly into 11-pound bulk boxes with some smaller boxes.
“About 80 percent of our dates are sold wholesale,” Rogers said.
Dates are shipped worldwide to Australia, which is the largest market, and to Malaysia and Indonesia. Dates are shipped domestically to some larger U.S. cities and are sold in the Martha’s Garden on-farm store and online.
Marketing is major challenge
Wright noted that the biggest challenge in the Medjool date industry is increasing interest in consumers eating dates. Few diseases or insects are major issues in the Yuma region. Martha’s Garden has direct-marketed a major portion of its dates with Nels Rogers traveling to Australia to develop the market in that country. Ongoing marketing continues to increase export and domestic sales. Rogers cited some of the challenges in marketing and shipping dates overseas.
“The global economy affects the number of dates purchased,” he said. “Monetary exchange rates have an impact.” He also cited concerns during the recent strike at West Coast ports affecting ships, because their dates travel by ship.
Date industry growth expected
Medjool dates were brought into the Southwestern desert in 1927 by a USDA scientist. Wright expects the economic contribution from date farming will continue to grow. Martha’s Garden plans to increase its production with shoots planted on additional land. Datepac, a packing coop of the Bard Valley Date Growers Association, packs about 20 million pounds of dates annually. About 10 percent of the crop is organic, and that percent is expected to increase.
UA’s Yuma Agricultural Center maintains a significant Medjool date research farm. Wright noted, “Palm dates are economically quite lucrative, and we’re following northern California in our high density planting.”
While increased mechanization is slowly occurring in larger operations, Martha’s Garden’s mechanization is mostly limited to lifts that raise workers up to the necessary heights for pollinating and harvesting. Wright noted that even in operations where increased mechanization is being implemented, hand labor is essential.
“You always need the human element,” he said.