Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shields Date Garden, Indio, CA

Last weekend we took a trip out to Palm Springs for the weekend. We went just for fun, but if you know us you'd know that we will often try to find a farm or at least something interesting about food wherever we are. Near Palm Springs is farm town called Indio, which is a major growing region for warm weather crops, namely citrus and dates. A quick drive from Palm Springs to Indio took us to Shields Date Gardens where we learned about the farm, date production and how ridiculously long it takes to grow a producing date palms. I had no idea how valuable dates were!
We were a little disappointed when we got there because they didn't actually let us go out into the groves, but what we could see from behind the fence it was enough and we learned quite a bit about these incredible little fruits while we were there. Mr. Shield and his wife showed up in Indio in 1924 and decided that was the place for them, and for their date farm. The gardens had a short movie you could watch which educated consumers about how dates are grown and harvested. Date palms take a long time to grow - like 7-10 years until commercial production can begin. I remember the video saying some take closer to 30 years which is insane.
The dates at the Shields farm are pollinated by hand, which means the farmers have to climb to the top of each palm and pollinate it (see the ladders?). This ensures a good fruit onset, and since you get one harvest a year, doing it right the first time is not taken lightly. When the dates ripen they do not ripen all at once and because of this date pickers will pick the tree 6 to 8 times a season. You can see in the image below that the fruit bearing sections of the tree are covered by a canvas material. We learned that the dates have to stay as dry as they can to avoid the fruit falling off or becoming damaged. Rain is actually quite an enemy to the fruit for these reasons. The palm groves are irrigated by flooding them, which is traditional to their origins middle east origins, and at the same time removes the damage threat over head water poses. Here in Indio as well as the rest of the Coachella Valley dates are picked in the fall - late September through December. 
The little store at the gardens was packed with all kind of varieties of dates and date products. When kept properly dates can last months. I decided that trying the date shake they sold was the best idea, and it was amazing!
If you would like to read more about dates I found a great article here, which is from the Ag Dept at Purdue University.

Shields Date Gardens
80-225 U.S. Highway 111
Indio, CA  92201

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