'People don't know dates are here': How volunteers are preserving unique taste of history

Tirion Morris
Arizona Republic

On a mild fall morning in Mesa, laughter floated through palm fronds as volunteers picked, sorted and boxed fresh Arizona dates.

The volunteer coordinator Deborah Thirkhill meandered, offering tools and expertise. When a someone asked her if a bunch of dates were any good, she plucked a fruit from the branch and bit into it with the side of her mouth.

Her eyes closed and a look of satisfaction washed over her face. She nodded. Yes, the dates were good. Thirkhill continued to snack on dates from various trees all morning and seemed to enjoy each one with the same enthusiasm. Her passion for this grove is tangible. 

"I just love it. I just can't get enough of it. And it's just so much fun to see students who have been stressed out or faculty, staff, community volunteers who were stressed out with the work week, just to have all those cares melt away," Thirkhill said. "I think being outside is such a healing process, being on the date farm and working towards producing that delicious, nutritious food is such a blessing."

Surrounded by sprawling suburbs, this collection of palm trees is known formally as the Arizona State University Polytechnic Date Grove Germplasm. For the last 13 years, Thirkhill has been in charge of running it and keeping Arizona's rich variety of dates alive and thriving.

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How did a date grove end up in the Valley?

Dates at ASU Polytechnic campus's Date Grove in Mesa on Oct. 23, 2021.

In the 1890s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a program called Agriculture Explorers where people traveled the world looking for crops that American farmers could grow at home. When visiting the Middle East, explorers collected offshoots from mature date palms and brought them back to the U.S.

The first offshoots were planted in California and Tempe. 

"It's part of our heritage," Thirkhill said. "There's over 100 years of the Salt River Valley being the place where they grow dates."

As early as the 1920s and '30s, Thirkhill says, it was popular for graduating classes of students to plant a tree as they left the university. Many classes opted to plant date palms, adding to the "food forest" available on campus.

In the 1990s, the ASU grounds crew began collecting rare hybrid dates and unique varieties from around campus and the Valley to create the designated ASU date grove. It was located on ASU's main Tempe campus where 230 date palms grew on 47 acres.

When the property was sold in the early 2000s, workers and volunteers uprooted the healthiest trees that produced the best tasting dates along with rare varieties that they wanted to save and relocated them to a smaller plot of only three acres in Mesa. Despite the scaled down size, the new grove is still home to more than 40 date palm varieties.

Dates at ASU Polytechnic campus's Date Grove in Mesa, Oct. 23, 2021.

Part of Thirkhill's job at the grove is preservation, she works to ensure rare trees survive and cultivates offshoots that are auctioned off. She also works with local farmers and ranchers in the Valley to teach them how to successfully plant, pollinate and harvest dates in Phoenix. 

Thirkhill was born and raised in Phoenix and remembers a time when the Valley had more agriculture and giant citrus groves in Mesa. It's where Phoenix's roots are, she said, which makes it important and worth preserving.

But date harvesting is a hard job, and it requires a lot of help. This makes volunteers who believe in the project essential.

For many volunteers, the date harvest is a fall tradition

While working at the grove this fall, longtime volunteer Mary Young reminisced about her time volunteering at the ASU Arboretum in the late '90s and early 2000s. At the time, she was studying to become a master gardener and needed a certain amount of hours to complete the training. That, combined with her love of dates, led her to volunteer in the date grove. It's become an annual tradition for she and her neighbor and friend Barbara Hackbarth.

"It's our fall thing, our fall harvest. We come once a year," Hackbarth said as she sat on the side of the harvest wagon sorting through a box of freshly picked dates.

Longtime volunteers like Hackbarth and Young helped teach Thirkhill about the inner-workings of the grove when she took over the job as Date Palm Germplasm Program Coordinator in 2008. 

Student worker Matthew Easter harvests dates at ASU Polytechnic campus's Date Grove in Mesa on Oct. 23, 2021.

For about a year, the grove didn't have a coordinator, Thirkhill said, so the volunteers had continued the work of pollinating, harvesting and culling the trees on their own. Back then, the dates were more accessible as the trees were smaller and easier to work with.

"I could work them from the ground and I thought, this is great. We can just stand down on the ground and pollinate them and everything," she said. "But they just started growing and they got taller and taller."

Thirkhill estimates the Amir Hajj palms that were once eight or 10 feet tall are now about 35 to 40 feet tall. She switched to 20 foot ladders, then the trees outgrew them.

Now, student worker Matthew Easter rises to the top of the trees in a boom lift and he bags and cuts dates while wearing a harness. 

"This is the stuff I like doing. This is organic, no pesticides, just bags and water," said Easter, who is studying sustainability and wildlife management. "In my family, everyone worked in agriculture at some point. My mom picked cotton, oranges and strawberries and my Grandpa grew grapes in California."

He delivered bagged bunches of dates onto flat two wheeled harvest wagons for volunteers to sort before returning to the treetops.  

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The grove is an oasis for volunteers

ASU pre-med senior and first time volunteer Ishaa Mandal was among those crowded around the trailers sorting dates. She works as a tour guide on campus and wanted to learn more about the grove in order to talk about it on her tours. 

"A lot of people don't know dates are here," she said. "And that's the best part of being a tour guide. If you give someone a tour and next year you see them on campus. You think maybe you influenced them to come here."

The reasons for volunteering run the gamut from earning community service hours to taking home free dates and many volunteers end up returning year after year. Thirkhill said that seeing enthusiasm develop in new volunteers is one of her favorite parts of the job.

"To work in the date grove and then eat dates, right, fresh off the palm tree, is just so great," Thirkhill said. "The flavors, the different varieties, how the palm looks, how different the fruit looks. Just the colors, textures. It's just a huge cornucopia of different flavors, smells, textures." 

Volunteers (from left) Gina Nichols, Macey Norvell and James Roche harvest dates at ASU Polytechnic campus's Date Grove in Mesa on Oct. 23, 2021.

First timers Garry and Chris Lueck hung out at the date packing station, loading boxes onto a flat bed truck.

Chris recently started working at ASU and Garry is a homebrewer who planned to make an experimental nut brown ale with the dates he'd take home from the harvest. If the small batch comes out well, his family might receive a bottle or two for Christmas, he said.

Next to the Luecks, were mother and daughter Mariamma and Sindhu Cherian. Sindhu needed volunteer hours for her high school Red Cross club and since her father works at the Polytechnic campus, she signed up to come to the date grove. Her mom Mariamma decided to join her.

"It's something to do with my daughter and strangely, I'm enjoying it," she said. "I've never seen so many varieties."

Mariamma plans to come again and bring her younger, middle-school age daughter to see the grove.

In the fresh air of the mornings, Thirkhill said she sees the stress melt away from volunteers.

"Everybody enjoys it so much. To volunteer at a working date ranch is just such a unique experience for everybody. They just reconnect with nature," Thirkhill said. "We always see a ton of birds, sometimes an owl flies out. The road runner comes running by or a fox runs through. So, it's really a really cool experience for everybody."

Thirkhill estimates she gets about 300 volunteers per year, both during the harvest season and to help with other parts of the process, such as pollinating, cleaning and selling dates. Many hands are needed for a grove that produces so much fruit. 

Some of the big, older trees, including the Amir Hajj and Honey variety, produce roughly 300 pounds of dates per palm tree, though most of the trees produce closer to 100 pounds each year.  

Volunteers harvest dates at ASU Polytechnic campus's Date Grove in Mesa on Oct. 23, 2021.

Where do the dates go?

In previous years, Thirkhill sold dates on campus. Because the grove is part of the university, the dates can't be sold commercially, but when all of her refrigeration systems went down earlier this year, she asked ASU for an exception. 

The exception was granted and the grove partnered with Sphinx Date Co., a family owned business in Scottsdale that sells dates from their shop in Old Town. The dates are now boxed up and sent to Sphinx for cleaning, packaging and selling. 

Sphinx Date Co. normally sells Black Sphinx dates and Medjool dates. But this year, thanks to the partnership, they have been able to offer about eight or nine varieties.

"People know that those are ASU dates and she has a lot of sampling there," Thirkhill said. "That's the main thing, we wanted to maximize everybody getting a taste of the different varieties of dates."

A row of dates grown at the Arizona State University farm offered by the Sphinx Date Co. in Scottsdale on Oct. 20, 2021.

She hopes their partnership will continue in years to come.

"Even though the students love every facet of it, it's a lot of work to make that happen," she said of being the farmer, the packer, the sorter and the seller. "You know, it's a bit much."

Proceeds that ASU receives from the dates sold at Sphinx go back to the Friends of the Arboretum, a foundation account that helps fund the date program.

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The future of Arizona dates

Deborah Thirkill informs volunteers about dates as they harvest them at ASU's Polytechnic campus Date Grove in Mesa, Oct. 23, 2021.

In Arizona and California, boutique farms are popping up to meet a growing demand for dates. Thirkhill works with small farms around the Valley, selling offshoots to preserve rare varieties.

One variety that's popular in the Middle East, but hard to find in America are Barhi dates, especially in the fresh, firm khalal stage of ripeness. 

They're one of the few varieties of date that can be eaten fresh. Before the fruits dry, they are bright yellow, hard and look something like a tiny pear. They taste crisp and have the texture of an apple. When dried, Barhi are small, golden and taste of honey.

Some Middle Eastern markets carry this variety around Ramadan, Thirkhill says. But most people, including the volunteers, have never tried them before. 

"There's a lot of interest in having these fresh varieties and rare varieties of dates," she said. "I'm just amazed at the interest in dates and how it's reviving and just really taking off. I think that's just amazing that the interest is out there."

Thirkhill is currently putting her expertise down on paper by writing a chapter of a book about date varieties in Phoenix. She's also recently been featured on a podcast, a first for her.

Looking ahead, she's optimistic about the future of date farming in metro Phoenix, especially as interest in eating local creates even more demand. "Eating real local," she said. "Like in ASU's case, you know, right underneath the tree."

Details: Volunteering opportunities have ended for the 2021 date harvest, but find opportunities to get involved at the grove in 2022 at news.asu.edu/20210930-sun-devil-life-annual-date-harvest-underway-asu.

ASU dates are sold at Sphinx Date Co., 3039 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale. 480-941-2261, sphinxdateranch.com.

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Reach the reporter at tirion.morris@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tirionmorris, on Facebook at Tirion Rose and on Instagram at tirionrose