Yuman Nature

Food tours enhance any visit to Yuma

Because Yuma is located near the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers in the southwest corner of the state, it’s no surprise that Yuma County’s top industry is agriculture. In fact, the agriculture industry in Yuma County represents an annual gross economic return of $3.2 billion, or more than one-third of Arizona’s annual total of $9.2 billion.

Date grove near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several factors account for that amazing total: Plentiful sunshine, ample labor, and high-quality irrigation water. The area also has fertile soil from sediment deposited by the Colorado River over millions of years.

Date grove near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Yuma, the local visitor center, offers four specialty tours for a farm-to-table experience. A local grower leads Field to Feast Tours at the University of Arizona research farm. Participants are given a list of ingredients needed for lunch and sent out into the field to pick them. Culinary students from Arizona Western College then use these fresh veggies to make lunch.

Date grove and winter lettuce field near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other popular foodie tours include Date Night Dinners served in a date grove where every course features the “fruit of kings”, Savor Yuma a progressive dinner that stops at three local restaurants, and Farmer’s Wife Dinners which celebrates fresh produce and farming traditions. If you want to go, book early.

Martha’s Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since Yuma is one of the world’s top producers of gourmet Medjool dates, we took a tour at Martha’s Gardens. In 1990, Nels and Martha Rogers bought a parcel of previously unused desert, cleared the land, drilled wells, and installed a drip irrigation system.

Martha’s Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original planting of 300 Medjool date palm offshoots thrived. Today the farm has around 8,000 palms. Only 250 of the trees are males since it’s the females that produce the fruit. The labor-intensive process of date farming includes hand pollination of female trees with pollen from male trees.

After the tour ended, we returned to the farm store for a delicious date milkshake, and we simply had to purchase a box of jumbo dates.

Martha’s Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Date production in the Yuma area now totals about 10 million pounds a year, a $30 to $35 million dollar industry that employs more than 2,000 people annually.

The date is one of the oldest cultivated tree crops with records showing that in Mesopotamia it was cultivated more than 5,000 years ago. This valuable food helped sustain desert peoples and nomadic wanderers of the Middle East and North Africa.

Martha’s Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The date was introduced to the western hemisphere by Spanish missionaries who planted date seeds around the missions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A few of the original palms or their offshoots (suckers growing from the base of the female palm) are still found in Southern California and Mexico. There were many varieties imported in the following years but the most significant was the Medjool date.

Imperial Date Gardens in Bard Valley near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Medjool originates in Morocco. Because of a disease outbreak in Morocco, eleven Medjool offshoots were imported in 1927 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). To be sure they were disease-free the trees were placed in quarantine for seven years in the state of Nevada. Nine plants survived and in 1935 they were removed and planted at the USDA date section in Indio, California. After several more years, offshoots from those were removed and distributed to a few growers. Five or more years later, quality Mejools were harvested.

Imperial Date Gardens in Bard Valley near Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twenty-four offshoots of those original trees were planted in the Bard Valley in 1944 by Stanley Dillman, date pioneer in the region.

Thanks to ideal soil and weather, the area around Yuma and Bard is now one of the world’s largest producers of premium-quality Medjools. Dates are harvested from the end of August through the first weeks of October. Each date palm must be climbed approximately 16-18 times a year to carry out hand operations necessary to ensure a good crop including pollination, thinning, separating strands of fruit with metal rings to help the air circulate and finally, bagging the date bunches.

Yuma Date Festival © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dates are high in fiber, potassium, and anti-oxidants and contain no fat. They are an organic product as no pesticides or chemicals are used on the trees or the dates. Many date confections are made locally, along with a local favorite: Dates shakes, or milkshakes made with ice cream and dates. The indescribable joy of a good date shake!

Worth Pondering…

Products from the soil are still the greatest industry in the world.

—Dick Cooper, 1966

Yuma: A River Runs Through It

Agriculture is Yuma County’s number one industry

Pleasant temperatures, plenty of sunshine, outdoor recreation, tasty food, local history, and natural and man-made wonders make Yuma a popular destination for winter visitors.

Home to almost 100,000 residents, the population nearly doubles with the arrival of sun-seeking snowbirds during the peak travel months of January, February, and March.

The Colorado River supplies the needed water to sustain the more than 175 crops grown in the Yuma area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Because most people think of Arizona as a big, dusty desert, many are surprised to learn that agriculture is Yuma County’s number one industry—and that Yuma grows more than 90 percent of the country’s leafy vegetables from November through March.

In fact, the agriculture industry in Yuma County represents an annual gross economic return of $3.2 billion, or more than one-third of Arizona’s annual total of $9.2 billion.

Yuma is the winter lettuce capital of America © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

With mild winters, little danger of hard frost and more than 350 days of sunshine a year, Yuma County enjoys the longest growing season in the country. And while the winter is notable for the emerald and ruby patchwork formed by vast vegetable fields, something is either growing or happening in Yuma County fields even during the hottest months of the year.

One reason is the fields—sediments deposited by the Colorado River over millions of years—have some of the most fertile soil in the country.

Yuma County ranks number one in Arizona for lemon, tangelo, and tangerine production in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But with less than three inches of rainfall annually, water was the missing component, though the mighty Colorado flowed nearby. The Bureau of Reclamation’s first big water project in the West gave nature a hand, with construction of the first dam on the Colorado and completion of the Yuma Siphon—delivering water through a huge tunnel built under the riverbed—in 1912, the same year Arizona became a state.

Now, of the 230,000 acres of land utilized for agriculture in Yuma County, 100 per cent are irrigated with Colorado River water delivered by one of the county’s seven irrigation districts. Every field in the county is also laser-leveled and graded using GPS technology, making Yuma’s irrigation network one of the most efficient in the world.

Winter is the peak growing season for lettuce, cabbage, and numerous other crops in the Yuma area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

All this has made Yuma County first in the state—and THIRD IN THE NATION—for vegetable production.

To put this in perspective, the Yuma area is home to nine salad plants that produce bagged lettuce and salad mixes. During peak production months, each of those plants processes more than two million pounds of lettuce per day.

There are also 23 cooling plants in the Yuma area, where powerful refrigeration units bring truck-sized loads of vegetables from field to shipping temperatures in less than half an hour. Crops harvested here in the morning can be in Phoenix by afternoon and on the East Coast in three to four days.

The Peanut Patch is nuts for you. Stop for a visit. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But lettuce is just part of the story: More than 175 different crops are grown in the Yuma area, including many grown to seed here because of the perfect growing conditions. For example, Yuma County ranks number one in Arizona for lemon, tangelo, and tangerine production, and for watermelons and cantaloupes; a local cattle company usually has more than 120,000 head of beef cows on its lot.

There also are more than 40,000 acres of wheat grown in this region. Desert durum comprises about 95 percent of Arizona’s wheat crop, with two-thirds of that exported— mainly to Italy for use in making premium pasta.

Yuma growers also grow kosher wheat used by Orthodox Jews to bake matzo (or matzoh), the unleavened bread wafers that are eaten at Passover. Because the rules for kosher production include that the wheat not receive moisture immediately prior to harvest, Yuma’s desert conditions and controlled irrigation make it a perfect spot to grow this specialty crop.

The Yuma area is one of the largest date producing areas outside of the Middle East © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Dates are another local crop with Biblical roots. Date production in the Yuma area now totals about 10 million pounds a year, a $30 to $35 million dollar industry that employs more than 2,000 people annually.

Martha’s Gardens is our go-to places for fresh medjool dates and date shakes in the Yuma area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The date is one of the oldest tree crops with records showing that in Mesopotamia it was cultivated more than 5,000 years ago. This valuable food helped sustain desert peoples and nomadic wanderers of the Middle East and North Africa.

Dates are high in fiber, potassium, and anti-oxidants and contain no fat. They are an organic product, as no pesticides or chemicals are used on the trees or the dates. Many date confections are made locally including my favorite: Dates shakes, or milkshakes made with ice cream and dates. The indescribable joy of a good date shake!

Oh, the undescribable joy of a date shake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Products from the soil are still the greatest industry in the world.

—Dick Cooper, 1966