For most Californians, dates are as synonymous with the Coachella Valley as endless pool parties and dusty music festivals. The state of California produces more than 90 percent of American-grown dates, mostly the Medjool, the Barari and the fabled Deglet Noor, the crown jewel of the sugary treat. But like practically everything and everyone else in California, these dates are relatively recent immigrants from faraway shores. But these newcomers were brought here by Uncle Sam himself.
In July 1898, the United States Congress passed the Agricultural Act. “Under this act,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported the next year, “the department is authorized to employ agricultural explorers who shall visit foreign countries in search of economic plants which are not grown in the United States, but which might be adapted to cultivation in the country." The government soon hired four pioneering “agricultural explorers,” including a multilingual Floridian named Walter T. Swingle, who was sent to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. "These agricultural explorers were kind of like the Indiana Joneses of the plant world," California historian Sarah Seekatz explains.
Swingle traveled through Italy, Algeria, Greece, Tunisia and the Sahara Desert. One of Swingle’s first momentous finds was the Capri fig tree, cuttings of which he sent back to America in 1899. While not producing appealingly edible fruit itself, the Capri was crucial to furthering the development of figs in America because it was the host plant to the blastophaga fly, which was essential for pollination of the Smyrna fig tree, which produces a tasty, nutty fruit. The Capris were successfully planted alongside the Smyrnas at government experiment stations. “The Smyrnas are growing finely this season," the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1899. “For the first time in the history of California, a crop of true Smyrna figs will be fathered.” From the start, Swingle also was on the lookout for different varieties of the date tree, well aware of the delicacy’s commercial appeal. While some varieties of date trees had been planted in California previously, they had generally languished or died of neglect.
Swingle’s greatest find was the Deglet Noor, “the queen of all dates,” considered the “most delicious fruit of the date palm.” Originating in Algeria, the Deglet Noor, with its sweet honey flavor, was touted as an elegant, exotic treat, which could “be eaten without soiling the fingers.” Dried Deglet Noors were already imported to America at astronomical prices. With the aid of soil sample tests, Swingle had a hunch that the Deglet Noor would grow particularly well in California’s Colorado deserts, which had similar weather to the Sahara and also access to water with low salt content. He sent 60-pound suckers from the Deglet date palms to government-run ranches in New Mexico and California, confident that “economic results of momentous character are without doubt shortly to be visited upon California.”
Over the next few years, government scientists and agriculturalists methodically experimented with how best to grow Deglet Noors in California. In 1904, the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
Word has been received here on the arrival at Imperial [County] by mail of two tons of plants in the shape of fifty to a hundred sacks of plants of the Deglet Noor date palm, which had been brought from the desert of the Sahara by Mr. Swingle of the Agricultural Department. The mail is all addressed to Mr. Hummard, a cousin of Swingle, who is in charge of the Government Experimental Station at Heber, and are sent by mail under the government frank because it was the easiest and cheapest way for the government to get them there. The Deglet Noor is the most valuable kind of date known, and Swingle is of the opinion that it will do well in the desert portion of this country.
All the while, Swingle continued his explorations across the globe, eventually sending back 30,000 different plant specimens, 10,000 of which were new to the United States. He introduced American farmers to new wine and table grapes, roses, cereals and, most important, a variety of mango, which the Chronicle in 1899 referred to as a “fruit cactus.” “It is of a dull red color,” a reporter wrote, “the size of a large potato, and tastes like a cantaloupe.”
Swingle was but one of a clutch of government explorers “scouring the earth to its farthest corners in search of new things to eat.” Under the leadership of botanist and explorer David Grandison Fairchild, who managed the exploration wing of the Bureau of Plant Industry’s Office of Seed and Plant Introduction, these intrepid explorers believed that American exceptionalism extended even to agriculture. “There is no crop that I know of that can’t be grown in some part or other of our possession,” Fairchild told a reporter in 1906. “Ours is the only country, except England, of which this is true. Not even vast Russia can boast as much, and certainly not France or Germany.”
Over time, the explorers would introduce America to varieties of avocado, persimmons, the lychee nut, Jordan almonds, pistachios, apricots, Meyer lemons, udo shoots and Russian wheat. During the first decade of the 20th century, date cultivation was the office’s main focus, so sure were Fairchild and Swingle that farmers in the West could flourish along with the industry. Fairchild explained to a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle: "Date introduction is one of the experiments upon which we are spending the most money. We import several hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of dates annually, and the desert regions of Arizona and California will grow this fruit. From Egypt, Algeria, Tunis, Mesopotamia and Muscat, we have now obtained altogether 170 varieties of date palm."
Their experiments were yielding positive results. By 1905, the trees at the Heber experimental farm were progressing smoothly. The Los Angeles Times reported on the crop that had been planted the previous year:
Last year 150 date suckers imported from Algeria, Northern Africa, were planted near the railroad town of Heber, and less than 3 percent of this planting was lost, while some of the plants grew to a height of seven feet during the first season. This year 350 more imported plants were planted on a tract of land in the town of Heber, and they are doing nicely. These date plants are of the Deglet Noor variety. This is the best date today known to the civilized world.
In the fall of 1906, another huge crop of dates was planted at the Mecca Government Experimental Station in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Overseen by Supervisor Bruce Drummond, the experiment was a rousing success:
Thousands of miles away from their native homes, a few hundred date palms on the Colorado desert are proving that another lucrative crop has been added to the many that make the fruit lands of California famous. At the Mecca Government Experimental Station of 15 acres, less than half a mile away from the rapidly receding Salton Sea, eleven varieties of dates are ripe. No picturesque Arabs in white robes are these farmers of the Department of Agriculture, but plain American citizens, for methods of the West are being applied to products of the East and in a few years the dates used in the United States will be entirely supplied from palms grown within its own borders.
By 1910, some farmers, with the assistance of the government, had begun planting fig trees in both the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, mostly of the Smyrna variety. “It is estimated that there are now about 4,000 acres of commercial fig orchards in the state of California and none elsewhere in the United States,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Last year California orchards produced 3 million pounds of dried figs; and three times that amount were imported from Asia Minor, Algeria and the south of Europe.”
Dates also were slowly being given or sold to local farmers in the Coachella Valley, with even more impressive results. Pioneering date growers quickly found that the land of the Salton Basin was in fact “better adapted for the profitable culture [of dates] than those parts of the Saharan desert where the best export dates have been produced.” In 1911, the San Francisco Chronicle profiled one of these new California date farmers, a man named J.P. Reed:
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He is a plain, everyday practical farmer, and what he has done others can do also. Five or six years ago J.P. Reed … secured 80 acres of land in the Coachella Valley. … He now has more than 6,000 trees growing in his date garden, and has been assured that no better dates are grown anywhere in the world than those harvested by him last season. His crop yielded no profit because he desired the farmers and landowners in the entire Coachella and Imperial Valley to test for themselves the quality of the dates produced, that they might judge of the probable future of the industry. … Nearly every farmer in the Salton Basin is planning on getting ready to plant date trees.
Date farms grew so rapidly in California that by 1912, the French government in Algeria banned the exportation of date palms to California, because their farmers complained there were not enough left for them. Over the next decade, the date industry exploded in California. By 1921, the Coachella Valley was so identified with date production that the annual “Festival of Dates,” sponsored by the Deglet Noor Date Growers Association, included 41 American producers. The festival featured a Date Queen and a talk by Swingle, now in charge of government work in plant physiology and breeding investigations. By 1930, it was estimated that California farmers had produced 3 million pounds of dates, with nearly 2 million of these the coveted Deglet Noor.
The date industry continued to grow until it became the Coachella Valley’s most famous export. More recently that's possibly usurped by music festivals ... but you can enjoy both.