Wednesday, 30 May 2012

May 25 - visit to USDA date collection Thermal, California

Today we moved from Yuma, Arizona to the Coachella Valley in California.  (This photo: date retail shop, Bard Valley).
We drove through some fascinating country including the Imperial Dunes - rolling white sand dunes - where some of the Star Wars movies were filmed. In the distance we could see the fence of the Mexican border.
Date gardens came into view as we drove along the inland Salton Sea.
Date production in the Coachella Valley differs from the Yuma area. In Coachella the major date variety grown is the Algerian variety Deglet Noor which makes up approx 70% of all plantings. This variety also differs in appearance to the Medjool. Other varieties grown include Halawi, Thoory, Zahidi, Khadrawy, Honey, Black Sphinx and Tarbazal. In total there are approx 8000 acres of dates grown in this area.
Glenn took us to the USDA date collection at Thermal and introduced us to Vince. It was a very special experience seeing this collection as we have collected a lot of information over the years and read a lot on the work of the USDA.
We actually got to see palms which the likes of Nixon and Carpenter had bred and we discussed results on the various varieties.
Tasted an enormous amount of different varieties that we hadn't tried before and looked at some of the equipment used for pruning and offshoot removal.
Vince, Jonte, Dave, Anita & Glenn. This research centre at USDA is also a large citrus research station with many varieties.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

May 24 - visit to Mexico

Glenn Wright and the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association had coordinated for us to visit a date pack house and plantation near San Luis in Mexico, kindly escorted by Andrew.
We were shown around the pack house and plantation by Everado and Cesar. (This photo: Dave, Glenn & Andrew listening to Everardo explain how the pack house operates).
Cesar, Glenn, Jonte, Anita, Dave & Everardo.
One couldn't image a better, more uniform plantation for premium large fruit production. Everything was neat and tidy and extremely well managed, right down to aerial offshoots being bagged to encourage root development. Fronds and thorns from the de-thorning process were all raked up and removed.
Jonte and Dave in a Mexican plantation.
The highlight of the day for us was going up into the canopy of the date palms on a reach lift/basket with a team of about 6 workers. We were coached in the process of fruit thinning Medjool at the small, green, marble size stage.
Jonte learning how to thin Medjool.
Thinned and un-thinned bunches.
Finished off a great morning with a superb feast of Mexican seafood.
On re-entering the US, Andrew drove us to  Datepac in Yuma where we were given a tour of the very high-tech packing house.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

May 23 - visit to largest Medjool plantation & presentation to BVMDGA

We started the day with Gus who is the region's largest grower with more than 3000 acres of Medjool. The size and scale of this operation is incredible, providing employment for around 150 staff all year round and an additional fleet of seasonal workers. (This photo: Gus, Dave & Anita)

This photo shows Gus's team who manufacture date bags used to cover the bunches.

Gus showed us his irrigation system and provided good advice on irrigation and infrastructure.

We drove around and looked at a number of his date gardens at different stages of maturity. There were date palms growing as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon!

We appreciate very much the time we spent with Gus and the invaluable insight he provided into how his family business has grown to such a large scale - and his confidence and vision for the future of the date industry. Gus has helped us to think bigger!

I had been invited by the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association to provide a presentation to their group and other interested parties, on the Australian date industry. I came prepared with a powerpoint presentation which covered aspects of our own Gurra Downs date business, projects we're involved in, the history of dates in Australia and the current status and future vision for industry growth. I presented at the Arizona University and received favourable comments from attendees over a shared lunch afterwards.

May 22 - meeting with date growers

Historically dates have been grown on the valley floor with little altitude above the height of the Colorado River, and indeed sea level. In some date gardens the water table is as close as one metre down. These areas are loamy clay and flood irrigated. In recent decades date production has expanded onto the mesa which is higher ground surrounding the valley, where land is more available and initially cheaper to purchase.
This morning Dave Mansheim, President of the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association took us to the plantation he manages on the mesa. These dates grow on sandier soils which are free draining and typically irrigated via a drip system. We were interested in seeing how this plantation was established where Dave has levelled land and planted date palms on terraces which have superb views over the valley floor. This concept of landscape terracing lends very nicely to real estate opportunities which may arise should urbanization continue.

Dave's management method for dealing with the large volume of date palm prunings was also of great interest - disposing of fronds on-site, leaving in alternate rows. Later a flail shredder passes over the fronds chopping into pieces. This residue sits ontop of the ground as mulch eventually breaking down.

Dave Mansheim with Dave & Anita

We met with Steve and Ron who also showed us their date gardens and had an opportunity to look at offshoot removal and methods used. Of particular interest was the sledgehammer chisel attached to a bobcat (skidsteer), used instead of the traditional handheld chisel and hammer. This method ensures workmen can work all day on removal instead of being worn out from swinging a sledgehammer - and we may well  adopt for our own offshoot removal.
Went to Ron's place and looked at various tools and machinery used in date production including construction of cages for high picking, flail shredder (this photo), hydraulic frond pruners, pollen blowers, an assortment of bunch bags and old and new fruit trays. (This photo: Ron & Dave inspecting the flail shredder)
We spent time with Glen V who swung by and showed us the original 6 Medjool which came to Yuma in approx 1944. A source of inspiration for us - as we see today, there are thousands of acres of Medjool palms descended from these original 6 which were the nucleous of the now very large Medjool industry in Bard/Yuma. It gives us hope that the date palms we have introduced to Australia may someday result in the growth of a commercial industry such as we see here in the USA. (This photo: Glen with Jonte & Dave)
Had a look at plantations Glen is involved in which included mature fruiting palms down to recently established plantations.We looked at freshly planted offshoots and the technique Glen uses to establish new gardens.
Saw teams of workers completing fruit thinning. We also looked at some Barhee date palms to see their fruit set. Glen was kind enough to show us a tree shaking machine he uses to shake ripened dates from bunches with minimum manual picking; a pollen extracting machine and blowers used to pollinate date palms at flowering. Dinner at Burgers & Beer with  members and their wives from the Date Growers Association.

Monday, 21 May 2012

May 21 - visiting date gardens

Well we’re in the heat of the desert at Yuma with a top temp today of 42C. Today was the first of our programmed itinerary where we were hosted by Nels, Martha and Jason Rogers of Martha’s Date Garden. These people grow premium Medjool dates. We had a tour of their plantation, nursery and packing house and learned a lot. This time of the year they are thinning fruit, tying down bunches and applying separating rings.

Bunch thinning
We very much appreciated the warm hospitality of Nels, Martha and Jason and were in awe of what they have achieved with their plantation and opening their property to the public for education and date sales in the cooler months.

Discussing the finer points of bunch covers with Glenn Wright at the University of Arizona.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

May 19 - Phoenix to Yuma

Before we left Phoenix we visited a date retail shop and had one of those famous date shakes - and gorged ourselves on chocolate coated dates. Part of the reason we wanted to see the US date industry is that we're aware they have many roadside date retail shops which we're really keen to have a look at. We've been considering for a long time now the prospects of opening such a shop on our home property so we very much want to see how these longstanding US businesses operate.
Left Phoenix driving towards Yuma, a 3 hour drive. A challenge getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road!!
On the way we stopped at Dateland, a very busy retail outlet - more date shakes and date icecream!! A big souveneir shop on the main road with lots of visitors.
Reached our hotel in Yuma late afternoon. Yuma has a population of around 90,000 which doubles in winter. It is almost summer and already 40 C and hot so we have some acclimatizing to do!

May 18 - Adelaide/Sydney/LA/Phoenix

Anita and Jonte are accompanying me for the first 3 1/2 weeks - the USA/Mexico leg. We left Adelaide on May 18 flying to Los Angeles via Sydney, and onto Phoenix, Arizona. Hired a Ford Escape and overnighted in Phoenix. Flying over so much desert and so many mountains, we found Phoenix to be surprisingly large with a population of approx 4.2 million! (making it the 14th largest metro area in the US and being home to more than 2/3rds of Arizona's population).............after all that flying and sitting in airports - still May 18!!