Bautista Family Organic Dates

Jonnah Perkins
Published Feb 28, 2022. Read time: 12 mins

Fruits of the desert

By the way the crow flies, Bautista Family Organic Dates, is just a little over a mile from the north shore of the Salton Sea. On 15 acres, the Bautista family specializes in dates, the sweet fruits of the date palm tree. Alvaro Bautista, one of the five grown Bautista children that manage the family farm, loves the nuances of farming in the desert, “Right now in winter, it's really cold, about 27 degrees. And then in the summer, it can get up to 120 degrees, but it's a dry heat. It's beautiful. And the date trees thrive in the  heat.”

The Bautista’s also produce other orchard fruit, but dates have been at the core of their business for the past 21 years. Working within the desert ecosystem, and not against it, the family has created a vibrant community around their specialization in date production. Alvaro describes the holistic tapestry of the farm centered around dates: “We have citrus. We have pecan trees. We have mangoes. We have lemons. We have guava trees. It's a diversified farm. We have cattle and goats. But our main thing, it's dates.”

Mountains, date palms and the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when heavy rains caused the Colorado River to breach the head gates of the Alamo Canal. Spanning nearly 350 square miles, the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. The lake has been sustained by runoff from Imperial Valley agriculture, one of the most prolific food production areas in the world. “We are in the Coachella Valley, which is part of the Imperial Valley. It’s a big, deep valley with beautiful soil. I can see San Jacinto Mountains from where I am right now,” says Alvaro about the dramatic landscape where he lives and farms with his family. “From outside of my house I can see our palm trees. There are rows and rows of rows of them. They're separated by about 12 feet from each other. Some are 15 footers, others are up to 50 feet,” Alvaro describes the statuesque, geometric rows of date palms that surround his home.

From foreman to farm owner

“My dad was the foreman here at this ranch where we live right now,” says Alvaro. After Enrique Bautista, Alvaro’s father, immigrated to California from Michoacan, Mexico, he began working on the very farm that is now Bautista Family Organic Dates. In 1998, when the former owner was approaching retirement, he offered to work with Enrique to buy the farm, “When Fred Wendler offered for my dad to buy the ranch, my father said, I won't be able to afford it. But Fred insisted, I'm going to try my best to help you out so you can be the owner.” And it was this collaboration between Enrique and Fred that led to the eventual transition of the farm into the Bautista family name. “Fred wanted my dad to take over because he loved the way he worked. So he was willing to help my dad, no matter what, so he could afford the ranch. So that's how everything started here.”

Traveling through agriculture

Growing up in an agricultural family, Alvaro’s childhood summers were spent on the road. “When we finished the school year, my father would say to us, Okay, let's go work now. He'd contact different family members in other states and we would stay with them during harvest, then move onto the next place,” says Alvaro. His memories of his time traveling with his family are full of holistic adventure. “One summer he bought a Winnebago motorhome and we would sleep close to where we're going to work. We would just live there, close to the field.” The young Bautista family traveled throughout California, Oregon, and Washington, following orchard harvest seasons. Their life was always centered around food, “The picnics, that is what I remember the most. We would make a huge picnic outside the motorhome, and everybody gathered and it was just so fun. After the work day, other workers would come visit our family. It was a time of togetherness and meeting new families. It was beautiful.”

Thriving in the face of adversity

“My dad is quadriplegic. He had a car accident 17 years ago but he still manages the farm and manages us. He has taught me and my siblings how to run this farm,” Alvaro explains about the incredible challenges his family has overcome. After Enrique’s accident, driving to all of their regular farmers markets became a logistic that was overbearing for the family. They wanted to spend more time on the farm. This is when the family was approached by a customer who offered to support the family farm in building an online presence to reach more people through home deliveries. While the Bautista’s still love being at the farmers markets, diversifying how they sell their dates has created adaptive flexibility for the family.

What is a date?

Dates are the fruits of the date palm tree and are a traditional crop of the Middle East. Because of their native growing environments, they thrive in the hot, dry, sunny conditions in the California desert. “It's very hot here and that's why the dates love the Coachella Valley, it’s the dry heat. It turns dates into liquid gold.” Dates harvested at their prime are so delicate that the Bautista’s harvest them into flat baskets, so as not to crush the dates under the weight of themselves. 

Bautista Family Organic Dates grows seven varieties of dates– Medjool, Khadrawy, Halawy, Honey, Deglet Noor, Zahidi, Barhi–all of which have different production and harvest needs. One of the primary specializations of orchardists in diversified productions is understanding the nuances of different varieties. Date production requires skills in tree climbing, work on high ladders, hand pollination, and a keen understanding of the implications of weather conditions. 

When asked what his favorite way to eat his dates is, Alvaro’s response is simple, “Dates by themselves are just perfection. Well, our dates are because we harvest them at their prime.”

Date palm propagation and generational fruits

Many of the trees that the Bautista’s harvest from are the same trees that Enrique harvested from when he was working for Fred, prior to buying the farm. “There were quite a few trees here when my dad bought the farm. I’d say close to 200 trees. When my dad was working for Fred, he began to plant more trees, which are called offshoots. You take them from the mother tree and replant them. Offshoots take 10 to 15 years to really begin producing fruit. So right now, the ones my dad planted, they're barely in prime production,” says Alvaro. This means that the work and forethought of Enrique is like a time capsule of care for his family. And every offshoot that Alvaro and his siblings plant will echo in the generation of their children. The timeline of orcharding carries a greater gift than annual crops, which are harvested and replanted each year. But they also take a tremendous amount of patience.

Alvaro on the Precision in the Bautista harvest process

“We harvest dates when they're creamy, soft, and liquidy, which is the best time to harvest,” Alvaro says about the care that his family takes with selecting dates. “We harvest two or three times off each bunch. A lot of other date farmers just do one harvest. They let the entire bunch get ripe and make one pass. On our farm, we harvest only when the dates are perfectly ripe. Because of this process, our dates are soft and creamy, not chewy or dry. They're just a meal themselves.”

“Our peak harvest time is at the end of August when it's really hot. If you drop a date, it's all over for that date. It just bursts. So we need  to be very careful. The best time is in the morning because if it gets a little too hot, the dates will start getting mashed because we put a basket under the bunch and we shake the bunch. Whatever's ready, it just drops to the little basket. The process is beautiful.”

The No-Rain dance

While many farmers pray for rain, especially in arid regions, the timing of rain is what is most important in date production. Alvaro explains, “The challenge for us is the weather. When date harvest season is coming up, we pray for it not to rain. Because if the dates are already ready to harvest and it rains, the moisture will cause the fruit to ferment.” This fermentation process means that the Bautista’s are unable to bring those dates to market or ship to customers.

“One time, we lost almost half a crop, because we couldn’t get into the orchard.” Dates are harvested with ladders that are driven into the orchard on large implements. Mud makes the ground soft and unable to support the harvest equipment. “With wet soil, we can't go in and harvest the dates because it's so dangerous and we could get stuck. It can take a few weeks for the fields to dry out after a big rain. Farming is all about being ready to work when conditions are perfect. And waiting when they are not.”

Growing fruit in the desert

“Because most of the dates are originally from the Middle East, it's pretty much the same climate here and as it is there, but with  different soils,” Alvaro explains about growing desert harty fruits. The heavier soil of Coachella Valley is different from the native sandier soils of the Middle East, says Alvaro, “Here the soil holds water so it doesn't just seep in. This means the roots are getting water most of the time, even though we only water every month or so.” With a monthly watering schedule, the Batuista’s flood irrigate, meaning their entire orchard will be blanketed with water from an agricultural irrigation canal water allotment.

“The irrigation company opens the gates and we get flooded for two days and there's water all over the ranch. So it's super flooded. And then in two days they just shut it off and that's it. Then a month later we call them again,” says Alvaro of the simplicity of the flood irrigation system. Growing crops with low water needs is not only economical for the farmer, but ecologically appropriate for food production in an arid ecosystem. For any water that isn’t used from their irrigation allotment, the Bautista’s hold in ponds. These mini-reservoirs that dot the agricultural landscape in the Coachella Valley can be seen from GoogleEarth. Efficient water management systems are incredibly important for farming in dry climates to conserve water for downstream municipal water needs, wildlife habitat, and other farmers. “Because we grow palm trees, we don't take that much water. We are all taking water from the same place and I feel good about taking only what we need.”

On cattle, goats, and orcharding

In addition to producing fruits that need little water to thrive, the Bautista’s also use animals to help  keep the ground covered and support soil moisture levels. “The cows and goats  help us keep it clean and neat. We're 100% organic. The animals eat the grass and they fertilize the grass. That's our main manure. The goats can eat any plant that grows around here, we just let them lose and BOOM, right away in a week or so, the field is clean.”

In American and European agriculture this is called Silvopasture - the integration of ruminants and poultry into perennial plant systems, like orchards. But Alvaro explains that this is a traditional practice that his father grew up with, “My father always had animals as part of his family’s farm in Mexico. He had dairy cows and horses. And when we bought this ranch, my dad said, what this farm needs is animals. They work so beautifully together.”  The practice of separating animals and plants is a new concept of the commodification of food production. The Bautista’s have looked to their family roots in growing food to create more balance on their farm, save time, and have more food for their growing family. “Now we don’t need to mow so we don't use much machinery. The cows and goats are  getting fed really nice grass. They give the trees fertile soil while saving water, and they give us some meat and milk. This is such a beautiful circle that goes around.”

Understanding the value of food and those growing it

In a food system that separates farmers further and further from those eating their food, the Bautista’s have kept a close connection with their customers. Through farmers markets, home delivery, and their partnership with FruitStand, Bautista Family Organic Dates is able to keep the core values of date specialization at the forefront. While the fruit production ecosystem continues to consolidate, the Bautista’s have not wavered from staying true to Enrique’s vision of a small family farm.

“I've been doing this for 21 years and most of my customers do understand the price we charge. Dates are very labor intensive. Climbing the trees by ladder, de-thorning, pollinating, harvesting. It all takes a lot of time and a lot of skill,” says Alvaro. Farmers are so often asked to justify the price of their goods, and Alvaro is eager to share this information with his community. “I try to talk to my customers as much as I can, so they understand the price I'm charging, to see that it's fair.”

But this hasn’t always been easy for Alvaro, “There were a lot of challenges for me five or six years ago in letting people understand our prices. I decided to invite them to come to the farm to see how dates grow and the care we take with our fruit.” Many people have taken Alvaro up on his offer to visit so he can share his knowledge with those supporting the farm. “I love it when they come here and enjoy the view and enjoy the dates and enjoy the labor I do.” Valuing the food that farmers produce is also a matter of valuing the lives of farmers. Bautista's journey through agriculture, while supporting multiple generations of the Bautista family, is a true story of the American dream. 


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