Learn all about date game with look at family farm

Jason Rogers gives visitors a tour of Martha's Garden Date Farm just east of Yuma, on the edge of the mesa looking over the Gila Valley.

Tucked on the edge of the Yuma mesa between the railroad tracks and the Gila Gravity Canal, Martha's Garden Medjool Date Farm is not exactly on the beaten path.

But for those who find their way to the family-owned farm at 9747 S. Avenue 9-3/4E, there are varied surprises in store.

Of course, that includes date shakes — Martha's Garden took top honors for its creamy confection at the first annual Yuma Medjool Date Festival — along with a full menu of sandwiches, soup and non-date drinks.

But the bigger treat is a 90-minute tour of the farm that includes everything you ever wanted to know about dates — and quite a few things you would never think to ask.

History? Check. Agronomy? Check. Nutrition? Check. Economics of date farming? Check.

The syllabus even includes date palm sex. Pretty limited, in case you were wondering: Only 80 of the farm's 8,000 palms are males, and when the magic moment arrives, skilled workers harvest their pollen pods and sprinkle the female trees' fruit arms by hand.

At just $5 per person, the unit cost of facts to be learned is mere pennies apiece, a bargain in any currency. And the mostly Canadian snowbirds I joined on a recent afternoon agreed, despite the un-Yumanely blustery weather.

“Best, most interesting tour we've had anywhere ... just amazing,” said Helen Kincaid of Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. Since Kincaid and her husband, Jim, are winding up a journey that took them from sea to sea across Canada and shore-to-shore back through the United States, that's saying something.

The tours are led by Jason Rogers, eldest son of farm founder Nels Rogers. Visitors climb aboard a trailer equipped with padded seats and pulled by a farm utility vehicle and set off at what Rogers calls “a blistering 7 miles an hour.”

The tour loops the 100-plus acre farm, stopping several times for Rogers to describe the ups and downs of date cultivation, including the staggering fact that workers go up and down each tree 20 to 25 times per season to carry out the tasks necessary to produce a premium Medjool.

“Dates are not cheap, but there's a reason for that,” Rogers explained. “Date farming is very labor intensive, and because it takes a lot of heat and a lot of dryness, much of that work is done during the summer. Most visitors to Yuma will actually never see a date on a tree.”

The visitor-rich winter is the farm's slowest time, part of the reason Rogers offers tours. But a story he heard secondhand from some participants demonstrates a more important reason:

“They told me that on their way in, they ran into a couple in the parking lot who swore it was all a scam — that we imported our dates from the Middle East and pretending to grow them here was just a way to jack up the price.”

Rogers gestures to a grove of towering palms that were among 300 offshoots planted in 1990 to start the farm on what was then a virgin parcel of desert: “Pretty elaborate scam, eh?”

In fact, he hopes his tours give visitors a reason to find their way to Martha's Garden. It's the only area date farm that offers set tours, at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, so long as at least 10 folks are game to go. If space is available, you can sign up on the spot or pick a convenient date down the road and add your name to the book. Weekly tour capacity is 200 people but averages out to about 75 to 100 people per week, Rogers said.

Though the seven-year-old store was bustling that blustery afternoon, onsite retail sales only account for about 10 to 15 percent of total production, with another 5 percent sold online.

Surprisingly, up to 80 percent of the dates grown at Martha's Garden are sent overseas, including a significant portion to Australia. It's those overseas destinations that explain why a Martha's Garden “standard” box of dates weighs 11 pounds: that's two kilos metrically.

Still, what comes across by any measure in Rogers' presentation is passion: for the unusual agricultural specialty to which this father-and-son real estate team is now committed, but especially for the hard work — and the hard-working people — who make it all possible.

To get a taste of that passion — plus some spectacular Gila Valley views and maybe a date shake chaser — get off the beaten path and find your way to Martha's Garden.

Get directions online at www.marthasgardensdatefarm.com, put 9747 S. Avenue 9-3/4E into your GPS or call the store for directions at 726-8831 or 726-8833.

Ann Walker is a writer for the Yuma Visitors Bureau. She can be reached at ann@visityuma.com or 376-0100.

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