California Dates

Heroes, How-To, Local Heroes
on November 1, 2007
stuffed dates
Mark Boughton Photography / Styling by Teresa Blackburn

Temperatures in southeastern California’s Bard Valley hover around 120F on a summer afternoon. Hard on people, but great for dates. Among the growers in the area, Jim Freimuth and Chris Neilson own the 175-acre Oasis Dates Gardens, one of the country’s top producers of organic dates.

But to get to the harvest requires constant attention to the date palms. In January, the thorns that grow along the base of each leaf frond are removed. Then pollen is collected from the male palm and transferred to the female plants by hand. When fruits form, they are thinned by hand. As the date bunches grow they need more protection—rings are placed in each bunch to spread the dates apart and provide more air circulation, and each bunch in covered by a pillowcase-like bag to protect it from insects and birds. Harvesting the dates requires three passes through the grove, as not all dates ripen at the same time.

Freimuth and Neilson harvested more than 2 million pounds of dates last year. They sell wholesale across the nation and have an active mail-order business as well. And such dates! Organic, sweet and irresistible, terrific dipped in honey, spread with soft goat cheese or rolled in cocoa nibs. For a real treat, try their exotic Barhis, which taste like caramels when eaten straight out of the freezer. Or make our easy Date Nut Tart—a perfect ending to Thanksgiving dinner.

By Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, food writers in Colebrook, Conn.