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From Tree to Table: Sweet Desert Dates

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Many families are unaware that the Imperial and Coachella Valley is one of the most important farming regions in the state of California. Recently, I went to visit the area to learn more about the farmers, the produce that is grown and how the area is on the cutting edge of preserving water in the farming industry. During my visit, I made a stop at Hadley Date Gardens where I was given a unique opportunity of getting to learn how dates are grown, harvested and packaged for families to purchase.

When I arrived at Hadley Date Gardens, the first thing that caught my attention was the beautiful date palm trees. The family owned and operated business has been growing dates for over 70 years. The owner of Hadley Date Gardens, Herb Keck, was there to greet us upon arrival and take us on a tour of their farm and facility.

One important fact that Keck shared with us is that some dates are grown in Imperial and Uma, but most dates sold in the US are from the Coachella Valley. At Hadley Date Gardens, they farm about 1k acres. It is a vertically integrated business where they do everything from planting and developing the orchards to farming the trees, cleaning the crops and packing/shipping – they do it all.

What is unique about farming dates is that it is a much steadier work cycle for the farmers and staff. If they can manage it with fewer people, they do, and they will be employed all year long. What I loved about the owner of Hadley Date Gardens is that he knows all of his employees by name and about their families. In fact, many of their employees have been working with them for decades.

I love a delicious date, but I had no idea the work that goes into growing and harvesting them. Back in the day, it was just ‘ladder men’ who used to harvest the dates. Now they will use boom trucks for the 60+ foot trees. At Hadley Date Gardens, they are lucky to have still a few of the rare skilled ladder men working for them, but most of them are pushing their 50’s, and there is not a new generation of these skilled workers on the rise.

What is a ladder man? They are date farmers who need to be able to carry a ladder that is 100 pounds, climb up the tree, secure himself in the tree, work inside the tree with knives and thorns safely, and then get back down. They have to be able to do their job safely and productively, and it is very hard work.

When it comes to water, you need water to grow food. In the Coachella Valley, it is no man’s land except for water. The people that came to the area early in the day saw that it is a great state if you can harness water. During the drought, there was a lot of talk amongst the farming community about how many gallons are needed to grow crops, but that is how life is. “A salad is about 80 gallons of water to make, and when people can’t water their lawns, they start thinking about how precious water is,” said Keck.

Hadley Date Gardens have two facilities. They send all of their crops to the one in town where everything gets cleaned and grated, and then it comes to the packing house (where I was visiting) where it gets washed and packaged.

The date cycle is an all-year-long calendar cycle. They have one crop per season, and harvest is the last part of the year of production. If there is bad weather, there is the possibility that they could lose their crop, and that would have devastating impacts on the farmer.

After learning about how they grow and harvest the dates, we went inside the facility where we were given a unique opportunity of getting to see how they package the dates. I put on my hair net, and went into the packing facility where I talked with the workers, saw how much hard work goes into packaging the sweet fruit, and heard many stories from the tenured workers of their memories working for the family.

The next time that you’re looking for dates to feed your family, help support Southern California farmers who make water conservation a priority by purchasing from Hadley Date Gardens. You can know that your family is getting the purest fruit available on the market while helping to support a family owned small business.

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