Dates—as in the fruit from the Middle East—grow surprisingly well in Yuma County, Arizona. And harvest has just wrapped up. For the Arizona Science Desk, Maya Springhawk Robnett reports…
It’s the tail-end of the annual date harvest near the town of Wellton in southwestern Arizona.
39 year-old Misty Mastin, the co-owner of Naked Dates Farm, looks down a row of date palm trees. Bags of white cloth hang underneath wide green palm leaves…
“The clusters of fruit are covered with bags,” Mastin gestures to one of the trees in a seemingly endless row. “The ones that are still tied at the bottom—those still have fruit on them.”
Naked Dates co-owner—and Mastin’s partner—48-year old Kase Limmeroth opens one of the bags.
“A lot of times, of course, there’s dates in the bottom of the bag so you let those fall,” he explains as the dates tumble onto a white-cloth “canasta.”
Six years ago, Limmeroth and Mastin took over these 80 acres of desert farm land from Limmeroth’s parents, who had farmed in the northwest and started coming to Arizona in the 90’s. Limmeroth says they sort of fell into date farming.
“They were looking for a project down here,” he says. “They were coming down for the winters. And they looked at all kinds of different businesses and of course, farming was in their blood. So the farm actually worked out for them.”
Mastin named the farm “Naked Dates”—a play on words to highlight the farm’s organic focus.
Now the farm has 3,000 Medjool date palm trees. Ranging in age from 6 to 11 years old, they are not very tall—only about 7 feet. But they’re producing fruit in a region they are not native to.
Date production in Yuma County is a nearly 35-million-dollar industry, yielding about 10 million pounds of the fruit per year. Thanks to an agricultural disease that broke out in Morocco in 1927, a small group of the trees were brought to Nevada for quarantine. And in the 1940s, offshoots of those trees were planted in Bard Valley, just across the state line from here in California. Date farms in Yuma County trace directly to those original Moroccan palm trees.
In a small building near the rows of date palms, workers remove stems from harvested dates by hand.
“We call it the hat,” says 54-year-old Patty Ramos as she pries tiny plant stems off individual dates. When asked how many she thinks she “de-hats” per day, Ramos laughs. “How many?” she repeats incredulously. “I don’t know—millions, I guess!”
De-stemmed dates are then boxed in the sorting room. A final step involves a metal detector; dove hunting is popular in Yuma County.
“We haven’t had any problems with it here,” Mastin says, “and so far we haven’t found anything in any of our dates, but in the industry a lot of times what happens is, because of the dove hunters, they find BBs in the dates.”
Most of Naked Dates’ sales come from their website. The company is coming up on one of their busiest times of year: Christmas. The other busy holiday season is in June. Dates are important during Ramadan—the Muslim holy month. Naked Dates’ biggest distributor sells to international markets. Last year, they sold nearly 30,000 pounds of dates around Ramadan season. For Limmeroth, that’s a point of pride.
“Dates are a big part of our life,” he nods. “We’re definitely very proud. It means a lot to us that faiths—the Muslim faith in particular—enjoy the product.”
Even with Ramadan, Naked Dates is a labor of love for Mastin and Limmeroth; the farm is not breaking even yet, but they have high hopes for this year’s harvest.
Mastin still works a full-time job and they’ve taken out loans from with USDA and opened a small store selling date shakes, cookbooks, and more.
The Naked Dates Farm Store is open November through March.