A year ago, I tried my very first date. I had embarked on a journey to learn about food by visiting farms, and my first stop was a date ranch in the desert region known as Southern California’s Imperial Valley.
I’ve been thinking back to that harvest all year. It was the crew that stuck out in my mind. Watching the men climb the tallest palms to harvest the fruit was completely new to me, but I missed the opportunity to really engage with them or the people who caught the dates below.
I decided to return to the ranch to continue the story, this time with the intention of learning from the crew and hopefully extending a helping hand.
I arrived at the ranch early in the morning and followed Lucio, the farm manager, in his truck along a sandy road deep into the 300-acre orchard. We parked our cars between the rows of palms, the bright blue horizon of the Salton Sea lingering in the background.
I was so excited to be back. I’d visited the ranch a couple of times this past year to see the date fruit in various stages and, with every visit, I grew more comfortable in the desert region, feeling less like an outsider from the city and more like a bona fide date connoisseur.
I initially asked Lucio if I could work the ranch that day and finally get my hands dirty, but I didn’t follow through with my request. I got nervous about putting myself out there and was self-conscious that I would be perceived as some incompetent city slicker.
Lucio immediately introduced me to César, the foreman. The first thing I noticed about César was the greying mustache that framed his bright smile as he greeted me with kind eyes and a firm handshake. I instantly felt welcome to his part of the ranch.
César escorted us on foot farther into the palms toward his crew. I could hear a slight buzz in the air of chatter and laughter, and the closer we got, the louder the voices became.
As we approached the group, we passed pockets of neatly stacked boxes of dates lining the rows of palms. César opened one of the boxes and presented the dates to me with delight. He doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Spanish, but I could tell from his smile how much pride he takes in his product.
With Lucio translating for us, I learned that César has been working with dates for three years and farming for eight. He loves being outside and keeping his crew happy as he travels between harvests and leads crews for various crops including grapes, green beans, chili peppers, broccoli and lettuce.
We walked up behind the crew of eight men and women stationed around a table and watched them work the day’s harvest. They passed trays back and forth, sorting the dates into white boxes for the processing center.
Each person had their own spot at the table and they worked efficiently and seamlessly as a team. They were pleased to see Lucio with a guest, and the women laughed when they saw my camera, joking about their hair.
César gave a cheerful shout and walked up to each person to say hello. He told Lucio and me that he likes to make sure people are happy at work, because he believes a positive work environment increases productivity.
I stood off to the side, watching silently and trying not to bring attention to myself. A shyness always comes over me when I interact with farm crews. I feel like I exude a cultural naiveté, and often the language barrier prevents me from explaining the intentions of my visit.
I’m a woman with a camera and a notepad. How on earth am I contributing to the harvest and why should the crew give me their time?
I lingered in the background, trying not to interrupt their work. Then, suddenly, Lucio motioned me over to join the group. I mean, this is what I came back for, right?
I walked up to the table and stood side by side with one of the women. (Everyone in the crew was wearing a bandana, which I later learned is to protect their faces from the sun and dust.) She explained to me that they were sorting the dates by ripeness. The ripe ones made it into the boxes and the unripe ones would be stored at the orchard for a couple of weeks.
Everyone’s hands were moving feverishly when another woman reached out and handed me two dates: one ripe and one not ripe. As I took the dates from her, our eyes locked and she paused before pulling away, apologizing for the state of her hands. They were dry and cracked, with date pulp beneath her fingernails. In contrast, mine were clean and callus-free.
“No, no, no, please don’t apologize,” I said anxiously to her. I was the one who was embarrassed. I didn’t care what her hands looked like.
I visit farms, yes, but I’ve yet to go all in and get my hands dirty. I’ve never worked a day on a farm in my life. Visiting farms and seeing how many people are responsible for my food makes me feel inadequate because I rely on so many others to meet my needs.
As I tried to hide my hands, I was given a tray of dates that the crew just completed sorting. They cheered me on, insisting that I pour the dates into one of the boxes. They clapped and celebrated as I lifted the tray and slid the dates slowly into the container. I was dying inside from all the attention. I could feel my cheeks turning red, but I was dead-set on making sure those dates made it into the box.
With my box full and my hands free, the youngest member of the crew approached me and asked if I could take a picture of the box of dates he just packed. And with that, my second date harvest was complete.
Driving home that day, I reflected on the last year and the numerous farms I’ve visited since my first date harvest.
Maybe there’s a purpose for my visits that extends beyond my initial desire to learn about food. Maybe my camera and this blog are a way to share the stories of the people behind the produce. I don’t consider myself a documentarian — that’s way too fancy a title for me — but I do enjoy the people I’ve met along the way, and I’m so grateful for the chance to share my experiences with the world.