1- The Sex Life of a Date:
Date Palms are unique in that they are either a male tree or a female tree. The male trees produce pollen, and the female trees produce flowers. Unfortunately, neither birds nor bees are attracted to the flowers, so the females have to be hand pollinated.
During the latest part of February we begin to watch for the sheaths on the male trees to begin splitting open. We check each tree every single day. As soon as a sheath on a male tree begins to open, it is tied with string to hold it together, and removed from the tree. Here you get a much better view of the pollen because the sheath is split wide open. Once the sheath on the male tree opens, we will cut the whole sheath out of the tree then hang it upside down to dry. Once the pollen has dried to a very fine powder, we sift it into a large air-tight container for storage.
A male sheath that has been removed from the tree. Notice the small split where it is starting to break open. This sheath probably weighs close to 10 pounds.
The female trees have the same kind of sheath, and as they begin to flower, we will remove the sheath and separate each strand. We then tie the strands together and hand pollinates the flowers using the fresh pollen that we have collected from the male trees. We use a small ketchup squirt bottle for this process. We pollinate each female tree at least three times.
Around April or May, as the fruit begins to "bud" on the strands, we will begin the thinning process.
First, we open up each bunch of strands that we have tied together, and cut out the middle, leaving only the outside strands. Then we remove about 90% of the dates from each strand. This allows better air flows and the chance for each individual date to grow to its optimum size.
It is not unusual for the temperatures to be above 100 degrees during May when we are thinning and closer to 120 degrees during the date harvest, so most of our date workers will wear long sleeved shirts and long pants, and cover their faces with bandannas to protect themselves from both the sun and the heat. By removing the majority of the dates, the ones that are left will have enough room to grow to a March larger size.
2- Watering & Irrigating the Date Trees:
Date trees take as much water as a willow tree, yet they cannot tolerate rain or humidity. That's why dates have to be grown in the hot desert, where our average rainfall is less than 3 inches per year, and our summer temperatures reach in excess of 120 degrees.
The ground around the date trees has to be kept clear of grass and weeds which cause humidity. Special "borders" are built up around the trees in order to flood irrigate and contain the water at the root of the tree.
This special border disker scoops up the sand and forms a border around the date trees.
These borders keep the water where it is needed, at the root of the date trees. Each tree requires approximately nine acre-feet of water per year, but only at its roots!
The borders help conserve water and eliminate grass and weeds throughout the grove.
3- Bags & Bunches:
Around the beginning of August, the Dates are covered with a white muslin bag to protect the dates from birds and insects. The bags also help to catch any dates that ripen prior to the beginning of the date harvest.
Because each bunch is quite heavy, the fronds below the date bunches are positioned to help hold the weight of the dates.
4- Transplanting Date Pups:
All of our date trees are grown from pups (offshoots from the parent tree). This guarantees that both the tree and the fruit produced will be identical to the parent. It takes between 6 to 8 years before the pups will be big enough to transplant, and then another six or seven years before they will begin to produce.
To make it easier to separate the pups from the parent tree, we have attached a special chisel to the backhoe. The backhoe can exert quite a bit more force than an individual worker. A date pup partially separated from its parent tree.
After the new pups have been planted, they are given a "flat top" haircut, and wrapped in cardboard to protect the heart. They will receive a constant flow of water thru a drip irrigation system.
5- The Date Harvest
Although many date farms still use ladders, we use a U-Shaped basket on a forklift to reach the dates. We will be able to utilize this method until the trees are approx. 40 ft. tall. The forklift will be parked at the base of the tree, so that the tree trunk is positioned between the forks. The basket will then be lifted to an appropriate height so the dates can be easily harvested. As the basket is being lifted into the tree, the pickers are holding plastic trays that will be suspended from a branch so that they will hang underneath the date bunch while they harvest the dates. Once the trays are in place the pickers will untie the bottom of the bags covering the dates and shake out any dates that have already ripened and fallen off the strands.
Once the tray is full, it will be lowered down and an empty tray will be sent back up. The full trays will be emptied into a larger screened tray then taken to the processing area for sorting.
The dates are brought in from the grove in either these large wooden screen trays, or else in smaller black plastic trays.
The dates that have to be left in the heat to ripen have to be sorted individually as each date will ripen at its own pace. The dates are then emptied from the trays onto a shaker table that rocks gently back and forth. The table is covered in wet terry cloth towels. As the dates roll very slowly down the table, they are cleaned by the wet towels. (Of course, the towels are changed frequently throughout the day.) The dates then roll onto a conveyor belt where they will be sorted by size and quality. From there the dates are then packed and moved into cold storage until they are sold.