If you drive southeast of Palm Springs through the Eastern Coachella Valley, it's easy to get a little overwhelmed by the date palm trees.
They grow as tall as 70 feet, and they're everywhere. While dates aren't native to the Coachella Valley, they've given this region an identity, and have also become a top moneymaking crop. For the California Report, Lisa Morehouse has more.
Around 1900, as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to find crops from around the world which would grow well in the United States, “agricultural explorers” visited Algeria, Iraq and Egypt. They returned with date palm shoots, and after planting in a number of regions, found the Coachella Valley had the perfect climate for the crop.
Soon, farmers and business leaders decided consumers might find the Middle Eastern connection romantic. Theaters adopted Arabian themes, the town of Indio built a fairground with turrets and the Old Bagdad stage, and towns were named Mecca, Thermal and Oasis.
There aren’t many vestiges of Arabian-themed agri-tourism left in Coachella Valley, but dates are still important. They bring in over $30 million annually to the region, and more than 90 percent of the dates harvested in the U.S. grow here.
Outside the town of Thermal, date farmer Doug Adair explained, “All Medjools [a type of date] can be traced back to a single oasis in Morocco, and now it’s one of the main crops. It’s not my favorite, but for most people that like a really sweet dessert date, that’s the Mercedes-Benz of the date family.”
Walking through his small organic date farm called Pato’s Dream Date Gardens, Adair explains this isn’t seasonal work. Fall is harvest time, but dates require year-round attention. In January or February, the palmeros, or palm workers, make the trees safe to work in. They trim the crowns, ridding them of date spines with huge thorns, which can impale shoes, and flesh.
“There’s a story that God created the date palm in the Garden of Eden to benefit humanity,” he said, “and then the devil came along and added the spines to punish the humans for indulging in this amazing fruit.”
Adair came to the Eastern Coachella Valley in the 1970s, when he was working for the United Farmworkers Union. When he bought a house with nine palms, he partnered with a palmero friend to learn to farm dates, and they split the harvest earnings.
That friend is now his neighbor and fellow date farmer Francisco Paniagua. When I visit, it’s March, and Paniagua has already collected pollen from male date palm trees. Now, he’s climbing a ladder into the branches of a small female palm where brown sheaths that look like tongues cover the date flowers.
Adair explains, “As the flower matures, the sheath splits open. You can see the little yellow beads on the strands – on the hilos.”
From afar, the flowers look like ears of corn, up close, like strings of yellow pearls.
“When he goes up there,” Adair continued, “he’ll cut that sheath away and then put the male pollen on the female flower.” Paniagua squeezes a tool with a little rubber ball on the end to pollinate each flower.
Palmeros are considered elite among farmworkers -- highly skilled, well-respected, and better-paid.
In Spanish, Paniagua explained, “The average palmero makes about $25,000 to $30,000 a year. It’s a well-paying job.”
That relatively high pay comes at a cost.
“Palm tree work is very dangerous,” he said. “First, one must learn how to maneuver the ladder. It is very heavy; about 120 pounds. We have to carry it around. Then there are extremely sharp knives and machetes. There are countless of things to be wary of.”
Paniagua knows this from a very scary personal experience he had years ago.
“One time I fell off the palm tree, from about 35 feet high. I was up there trimming the thorns and, well, I fell feet first. I hurt my back. I had to have surgery and was in the hospital for about four months.”
There are stories of palmeros suffocating under decaying palm fronds, even dying falling from trees. Emmanuel Benitez, who works with California Rural Legal Assistance, believes the way workers are paid adds to the danger.
“The workers work by piece rate. Piece rate means you are paid a certain price for each tree you do. So the more trees you do, the more money you’re going to make.”
It is commonly thought palmeros work faster if they don’t wear safety harnesses. A little over a decade ago, Benitez was part of a group of advocates, Cal OSHA staff and date palm growers to draft the first ever safety codes specific to palmeros. Now, along with other regulations, workers must wear safety harnesses and the ladders must meet certain specifications. Benitez says he rarely sees employers in violation of the regulations, now.
Despite these protections, Paniagua is clear about the qualities someone still needs to be a palmero:
“A lot of courage and a lot of strength is needed to work with palm trees.”
That’s how this group of workers will carry on an agricultural tradition that’s a century old.