Friday we had the opportunity to visit the Oasis Date Farm in Thermal, CA which is in the desert and just east of Indio. They began growing dates in the U.S. in 1904. Indio is the Date Capital of the U.S. The area only gets 3 inches of rain per year and the dates are watered by a canal that runs to the area from the Colorado River. The tour was set up for us by Pam from the California Date Administrative Committee in Indio and our guide at the Oasis Date Farm was Ericka. We would like to thank them both for making our tour one of the highlights of our trip so far. Pam also sent brochures to the 1st and 3rd grade class at Woodmoor Elementary and Ericka gave us handout activities and date pits along with instructions on how the kids could grow their own date plant. The date palms love the hot sun of the desert but need lots of water. Trees can be 100 feet high and will bear fruit for 100 years. There are approximately 300,000 date palms in the area with 95% of all dates grown in the U.S. here. One tree produces 200 to 300 pounds of dates each year. It takes 6 years after a new tree is planted to grow good dates. There are both male and female date palms. The male produces pollen which is gathered in February and the female produces the fruit. Each March workers manually pollinate the female blossoms with the pollen they collected from the male trees in February. The pollen is placed on cotton balls, inserted into small paper bags and placed over the tops of the newly emerging branches of the female tree. Growers plant one male tree to pollinate 50 female trees. In the hot summer months in the desert, the dates continue to grow with lots of water. Mesh bags are placed over the bunches to protect them from insects, birds, rain and the hot sun until harvest. Harvest is September through November. Some varieties are harvested by hand while others are harvested by machine. The Medjool is picked by hand because of its softness and the bunches ripen from the bottom up so they are picked at 3 different times during harvest. Pickers place them into canvas bags that are shaped like a bowl because they are so soft and tender. Fruit ready to be packed goes through a cleaning process on an inclined "shaker table", covered with terry cloth towels. These clean the dates as they shake and slide down the table. The shaker table sends the dates down to a conveyor belt where they are sorted by size and quality and boxed by appropriate grade. The dates are then placed in freezer storage until they are shipped to market and ultimately your dinner table. There are over 30 varieties of dates but the Medjool is the cream of the crop. Dates are naturally sweet, have lots of good vitamins and nutrients and are good for you to eat. We even had a date milk shake...YUM!