When I called to arrange a visit to the Bautista Family Organic Date Ranch, Alicia Gonzalez, the office manager and daughter of founder Enrique Bautista, warned me to come early. “Come in at 8 a.m.,” she said. “It’s going to be very hot this week.”
It was the middle of summer and the ranch is on the northern tip of the Salton Sea – 50 meters below sea level in the small desert community of Mecca. Triple digit temperatures are common in the summer months and when I do Arrived at 8 a.m., my car thermometer was 98 degrees.
Fortunately, the 14 acre farm feels like some kind of oasis with its own (slightly) cooler microclimate. Fruit trees like guava and mango thrive, as do large, shady trees called guamúchil, which are native to Mexico and are characterized by their tuberous green and pink fruit pods that hide tiny seeds and a soft pulp that is sweet and floral and bitter. Cows, goats, peacocks and dogs roam the property.
The focus of the family is of course on the 1,000+ date palms – with a height of 9 to 18 meters – and the fruits, which are praised by chefs and customers all over Southern California. Each year the trees produce 100,000 pounds of dates – Medjool, Deglet Noor, Halawy, Khadrawy, Barhi, Honey, and Zahidi – with flavors ranging from wildflower honey to caramel. They are sold online and at farmers markets such as Santa Monica, Hollywood, Torrance, and Studio City.
“The quality … really can’t be compared with what you get from a vegetable producer,” says République chef Walter Manzke, who gets dates from the Bautistas when they are in season. “I bought Medjools yesterday [at the Santa Monica farmers market], and we combine it with grilled cauliflower, a dash of olive oil, chermoula, labneh and garnish with their dates. There is a touch of heat to it [from chile], and the rich sweetness of the dates works so well [with] it.”
Enrique Bautista and his wife Graciela emigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, to the Coachella Valley in the 1970s. Both had farming experience and in the 1990s he became a foreman on a date farm owned by Fred and Betty Wendler, who were both his employers and friends. When the Wendlers decided to retire, Enrique bought the farm and his family got involved in the work.
In 2004 he was injured in a car accident in which he was sitting in a wheelchair. At this point, his children and grandchildren took responsibility for the business and kept it going, and Enrique continues to explore the property and offer his wisdom and advice.
The operation of the farm is comprehensive. For starters, dates are not easy to grow. They must be closely monitored and require seven to nine months of intensive care. Moving a ladder from one tree to the next can be a feat – that’s why the Bautistas now use forklifts to reach the fruits of the tallest trees.
The dates are organic, which means the Bautistas don’t use pesticides or chemicals to keep living things at bay. And the trees must be inspected once a year, which means paperwork (including an activity log) kept, negotiated with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and organic certification fees paid.
During my visit, Alicia’s brother, Alvaro Bautista, who runs the farmers market portion of the business and works on the farm, showed off a few green dates that were two to three months before the harvest. He explained how pollination works and how many employees try to protect the fruit as it ripens.
Pollination seems to be the greatest challenge facing the Bautistas. The most difficult thing about agriculture is of course the (extreme) climate. But pollination “has to happen as soon as the dates start to bloom, and if we don’t get them in time, our dates will be very, very tiny,” says Alicia. (In a region with thousands of acres of date palms, tiny dates just won’t cut.)
Bautista Farm is on a two-lane road littered with other date farms on the outskirts of Mecca. A long driveway runs to one side of the property, which then winds around a complex of buildings with offices, a packaging facility, and residential buildings where some of the Bautistas live. That may seem surprising at a time when small, family-run farms are rapidly disappearing across the country, but Alicia wants to dispel that notion – at least when it comes to her own family. “We love our job,” she says. “It fills us with great satisfaction to continue what my father started – a family-run company.”