Travel Destinations

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Date with Yuma’s Agritourism

25 Year Old Medjool Date Palms at Martha's Gardens Date Farm Yuma Arizona

Agritourism in the United States is a fairly new concept, so you might be wondering, what is agritourism?  According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of agritourism is “the practice of touring agricultural areas to see farms and often to participate in farm activities.”  In this age where we want to know exactly where our food is coming from, agritourism is the perfect addition to a vacation itinerary, and Yuma, a small agricultural town in Arizona, is the perfect travel destination for agritourism. 

Agriculture is Yuma’s number one economic source, to the tune of $3.2 billion a year, followed by the military and tourism.  Yuma is third in the nation for vegetable production and is the winter vegetable capital of the world.  If you’re eating a salad on the east coast or in Canada during the winter, there’s a 90% chance the greens on your plate were growing in the fields of Yuma just a couple days ago.

Suset in the Date Grove at the Date Night Dinners Yuma Arizona

During our weekend getaway to Yuma, we experienced the date portion of Yuma’s agritourism.  Yuma’s date history began in 1927 with Dr. Walter Tennyson Swingle, the hero of Yuma’s Medjool date industry.  The Medjool date palms of Morocco became diseased and it looked like the species was going to be lost, and Medjool dates are the most sought after dates because they are large and soft, while most other date species are dry.  Medjool dates are the only dates you’ll see in the produce section.  The United States government decided to send Dr. Swingle to Morocco to see if he could save the species.  Eleven offshoots were sent from Morocco to the United States by ship and quarantined in Nevada under Dr. Swingle's care.  Miraculously nine of the offshoots survived and remained disease-free.  They were transplanted to a government date research center in Indio, California and offshoots of the original nine were eventually sent to the few regions of the United States with the conditions needed to grow Medjool dates, including Yuma.  All of the Medjool date trees in North America are ancestors of those nine offshoots.  

Yuma’s Medjool dates and their versatility are showcased at one of Yuma’s newest agritourism events, Date Night Dinners.  Date Night Dinners are put on by the Yuma Visitors Bureau in a small date grove on the property of Jon and Liney Jessen, owners of the Gowan Company.  Date Night diners are greeted with a beautiful setup of a white tent with hanging crystal chandeliers shading a long table covered with white tablecloths, metallic chargers, candles, and fresh flowers. 

Date Night Dinners Table Setting Yuma Arizona

Chef Alex Trujillo, Yuma’s local celebrity chef, creates a three-course menu with every course featuring dates in some form.  After socializing, having a drink, snacking on passed date hors d’oeuvres, and enjoying the view, we sat down to our date inspired dinner.  Our first course was a mixed green salad wrapped in thin slices of cucumber and topped with carrot curls, honey, and a date puree.  The main course featured two proteins, beef short ribs so tender they fell apart when touched with a fork and served with a succotash and thinly sliced caramelized dates, and my favorite, chicken stuffed with apples and dates on top of a spicy sweet chili sauce.  Our meal ended on a sweet note with a Kahlua date frappe and a date liqueur.

Date Night Dinners Salad Yuma Arizona Date Night Dinners Main Course Yuma Arizona

To further our date education, we got an inside look at Yuma’s date farm production at Martha’s Gardens Date Farm.  On a tour led by the owners’ son, Jason Rogers, we took a ride around the date farm and learned all about the hard work that goes into farming dates for the rest of the world.

Martha’s Gardens Date Farm is a family-owned operation, established in 1989, consisting of 140 planted acres with 8,000 date palms.  The ground in which the date palms are growing looks more like a sandy beach than a farm field.  Very few things could grow in this piece of earth, but it is perfect for Medjool date palms, which require a moist base, a dry top, and high heat.  Medjool date trees thrive in over 100 degree temperatures, and such high temperatures are necessary for a perfectly ripened, sweet date.

Martha's Gardens Date Farm Yuma Arizona

During our tour, the time-intensive process of growing and harvesting dates was explained.  Everything is done by hand and every single tree on the farm is visited approximately 25 times with up to 15 visits to the tops and 10 visits to the bottoms.  Many steps have to occur before a date can reach your shelf.  Thorns need to be hand stripped from new growth.  Fruit arms, the part that grows the dates on the palm, need to be pollinated by hand, thinned, separated, bagged, and harvested.  Each step of this process requires farm workers to take a trip to the top of every single tree multiple times.  Harvest occurs August through October, the hottest time of the year when temperatures reach far over 100 degrees.  Consumers worried about pesticides will be happy to learn that the only form of pest control used on the dates is the bags that keep out the bugs.  No chemicals whatsoever are used on the dates.  After the tour, visitors get a chance to peruse the date gift shop and enjoy a date shake.

Martha’s Gardens Date Farm is open to the public October through May and offers tours 
Monday through Friday.  Contact them to schedule a tour.

Part of the purpose of these date themed agri-tours is to raise date awareness and encourage date consumption in American homes.  With all the hard work that goes into producing these high-quality dates, it’s rather anticlimactic to learn that 80% of the dates grown are exported to other countries and that only 5% of households in the United States consume dates.  Most of Yuma’s dates are shipped to Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Norway, Trinidad, Singapore, and even the Middle East.   While in the Middle East the average individual consumes multiple pounds of dates per year, consumers in the United States consume about six dates a year.  Not six pounds of dates, but six individual dates, and those usually only around the holidays. 

Medjool Date Palms and the Yuma Arizona Desert at Martha's Gardens Date Farm

Jason Rogers believes this will change in the next 10 years and that someday Americans will recognize the health benefits of dates and they will become as popular as avocados, kiwis, and other super foods. Dates are nature’s power fruit.  Dates have antioxidants, potassium, fiber, and sugar with a low glycemic index, meaning you won’t get a sugar high followed by a crash.  If you’re new to consuming dates and are worried you won’t eat them fast enough, there is no reason to fear.  As dates have no cellular structure to break down, they can be frozen, thawed, and refrozen multiple times with no effect.  Freezing actually preserves the moisture in the dates and they can last two years in the freezer, six months in the refrigerator, and six weeks at room temperature.  Jason suggested baking dates stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon.

Agritourism is an exciting and fascinating new piece of the travel puzzle.  After all, travel isn’t just to have fun, it is also to learn.  Agritourism provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about where the food on your plate comes from and how it gets there, and have fun learning.  In addition to Date Night Dinners and farm tours at Martha’s Gardens Date Farm, there are other agritourism opportunities in Yuma including “Field to Feast” agriculture tours and tours of other farms, like goat farms that produce goat cheese (perfect for stuffing into a Medjool date).  So consider Yuma as an agritourism destination to add to your travel plans, and in the meantime, in the words of John Haydock, Vice President of Sales for Datepac, “Eat a Medjool date, or at least try one.”

Thank you to the Yuma Convention & Visitors Bureau for hosting our trip to Yuma and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Travel the World: Agritourism is a budding industry in Yuma, Arizona where travelers can learn about Yuma's agriculture and where their food comes from, including the popular Medjool date.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.