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DATES FROM OUR OWN DESERT
CHARLTON LAWRENCE EDHOLM
OUR Southwestern desert is developing a new industry which will add a delicious fruit to our native food supply, the fresh date of high quality, which will replace the low grade imported product, the sticky dried dates from the Persian Gulf. The Deglet Noor date grown in southern CaHfornia and Arizona is as much more appetizing than the messy lump of dried, crushed and unclean dates that the grocer pries off the ordinary cube, as a sound, sweet, rosy-cheeked apple is superior to the leathery slice of the same fruit which the clerk scoops out of the dried apple barrel.
Within a few years we may see the Eastern market supplied with the fancy fresh dates from our own desert, for already this de
licious fruit is sold in Los Angeles, though the output is quite limited.
For some years the U. S. Government has conducted experiments in date growing with shoots brought from famous orchards in Persia, Tunis and Egypt. These tests and the results of planting by ranchers in southern California and Arizona have demonstrated that the date can be profitably cultivated within our own borders, and various companies are now being formed to go into the business on a large scale. Just what this industry may mean in the Southwest can only .be guessed at but its possibilities seem very great for there is not only the food value of the fruit to be considered but also the various by - products of a date orchard which make the palm in its native land a sort of universal provider.
Three Year Old Tree In The Coaci Klla Valley.
Off Shoots Banked So As To Form Independent Roots.
The leaves furnish a long fibre which is excellent for cordage, mats, baskets and so forth. The pulpy part of the leaf and stem can be made into paper which is said to be of a superior quality; while sugar, alcohol, wax, starch and dyeing material form other by-products of the date palm, to say nothing of the wine made from sap of the old trees. In its African home the palm is also used for building and furniture making and in fact enough beautiful pieces of furniture have been made by amateurs in this country from the palm stems to suggest another by-product. Thus in the cultivation of a desert plant we may find a partial solution to the problem of reclaiming our own arid wastes.
The conditions for successful date growing are stated in the Arab proverb
that "the palm should have its feet in the water and its head in the fire." An abundance of water at the roots, but the least possible humidity in the atmosphere are the chief requisites, and these are found in various parts of Arizona and southern California, notably the Salton Basin. Here the water is brought up from wells at a depth of about one hundred feet, while artesian water is found at about five hundred feet. The desert heat is intensified in this basin by the bare slopes of the mountains near by, which throw back the rays of the sun into the centre of the valley, producing an exceedingly dry and hot atmosphere.
A large acreage has been set out in date palms near Indio on the Salton Basin and until these young trees are producing there will be good profits from raising alfalfa which is planted between the trees, this doubling up of the crops being advantageous to both. Even more valuable than the alfalfa as a secondary crop is the cotton which is now being produced in the Coachella and Imperial valleys and which flourishes under like conditions with the date. This can be planted between the thirty-foot rows of trees without damage to either crop. Experiments have shown that the area adapted to date growing in California is also suitable for the raising of the long-fibred Egyptian cotton, an expensive variety which we import to the extent of sixteen million dollars every year. One of the companies which is going into the date business extensively has built a cotton gin and warehouse preparatory to raising these two crops on the same ground.
The date palms produce fruit in their third year and bear generously from the fifth year on and unlike most fruit trees do not deteriorate with age. Some of the historic palms in the Orient are said to be a couple of thousand years old and bear from 400 to 600 pounds per tree every year.
A source of revenue aside from the fruit is the sale of the off-shoots from the mature trees which are banked up so as to allow the shoot to form a root of its own. These may be cut away and used for extending the date orchard, or they have a ready market. This method of propagating by shoots is more satisfactory than that of planting the seeds even though the cost is greater, for the date has its peculiarities, one of which is that a seed of one variety may produce a tree of an entirely different nature and you never can tell whether you are going to get a superior or an inferior sort. Mr. W. F. Stevens, one of the pioneer date growers of the Salton Basin, states that one may expect at least one hundred plants of the best quality of dates from the one thousand seeds planted to the acre.
After the young trees come to flower it is possible to determine which are the fruit-bearing, or female plants, and then almost all of the male plants, perhaps half of the total number of seedlings, are taken up. But these are not a total loss as there is a good market for them in the cities for ornamental trees, and
when the industry is conducted on a larger scale such trees would have a value as raw materials for cordage and other manufacturing products.
On the other hand the propagation by off-shoots seems to be a matter of certainty even though much more expensive, as the female tree of a given high grade date will produce nothing but female, or fruit-bearing, off-shoots of the same grade. Experiments show that on an average the grower can take off one shoot a year from a tree after its third year up until its tenth year, although cases have been known of off-shoots being produced up to the twentieth year.
The method of planting seedlings is to set the trees in rows thirty feet apart and about eighteen inches between seeds in the row. In this way it is possible to plant about one thousand seeds to an acre. As the trees develop they are thinned out until finally there is a space of thirty feet between the trees in both directions. In setting out shoots there is the sanie space of thirty feet allowed between the rows, of course, but the shoots in the row are not placed so close together. When the trees are mature the long fronds will intertwine even at that distance, forming vistas of graceful arches and yielding a delightfully cool shade for the desert dweller. There is probably no tree in the world which is more beautiful than the date palm with its long curving leaves and its huge clusters of golden fruit from eighty to one hundred and thirty pounds to the tree.
A Department of Agriculture bulletin gives this statement:
"There exists already a large market for a date of superior quality, suitable for household uses, and for employment in confectionery, while demand for the finest grade of Saharan Deglet Noor dates far exceeds the supply even when they are sold for more than selected Smyrna figs. American orders for a quarter million pounds have been refused by the Algerian producers because the supply barely sufficed the European demand.
"It is clear from what has preceded in this bulletin that the Salton Basin is not only the most promising region in the United States for the culture of the best sort of dates, but it is actually better adapted for the profitable culture than those parts of the Saharan Desert where the best export dates are produced.
"There can be no doubt that the Deglet Noor date will ripen fully in the Salton Basin, even when the season is exceptionally cool. The importance of this demonstration can hardly be overestimated, since it renders it possible to establish in America the culture of this choice date, the most expensive of dried fruits, with certainty of success."
The foregoing bulletin states that at a conservative estimate 4,500 pounds of dates can be produced per acre.
This is not mere theory but conclusions from actual tests in Arizona and the Salton Basin, where the government has an experimental fruit station with ninety different kinds of date palms. In addition to this there are several ■ ranchers in the valley who are producing marketable fruit on a small scale.
The market price of these dates ranges from thirty-five to fifty cents and even to a dollar a pound for the fancy grades. No expensive artificial process is required to prepare the date for shipment; its own sugar is a natural preservative.