Have a sweet taste of the American southwest at the historic China Ranch date farm and sink your teeth into the delicious date palm fruit. We explore this oasis of date palms in the Mojave Desert, where you can learn about the date tree, sample fresh dates and even buy a date palm tree of your own!
Hi, my name is Brian Brown, I’m the owner of China Ranch, which is an oasis here in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley.
These very large date palm trees that we’re standing in were planted from seeds by my grandmother’s younger sister in the year 1920, and as you can see, date palms grow very well in this hot, dry climate.
We also have a gift shop and bakery where we bake fresh date bread and cookies daily, and we make date milkshakes, which is sort of our specialty.
We grow over 15 different varieties of dates. Dates can be different colours and shapes and sizes and have very different tastes, and we work at acquiring young trees of many different varieties and planting those, and now they’re bearing fruit for us.
One mile away from us, about 2 kilometres, is the Amargosa River, which is a little river that actually flows along the edge of Death Valley. It’s a very beautiful little hike. The best weather is between October and April, but people are welcome to come here all year round.
First, we’re going to head down the old grove of trees. Date trees are interesting because there are male and female trees. Only the female trees produce the fruit, and we only need one male tree for about every 50 female trees. Since these old trees were planted from seeds about half of them are males, but they provide enough pollen for the rest of the farm here – over 1200 date palm trees. Every spring, we collect the pollen from the male trees and we hand-pollinate the female flowers – we have to climb up to the tops of these trees and dust the flowers with male pollen.
This tree that we’re standing under is a mesquite tree, and in the American south-west, these are very critical trees. I’m going to show you – these are mesquite beans. Even though they’re hard and dry, they provide food for a lot of different kinds of animals – all sorts of rodents will eat them, birds will eat them, coyotes when they’re young and not very good hunters will eat them, so these provide food for a lot of animals. And also, because they’re a bean, a legume, they actually add nitrogen to the soil, which is good for the soil also. So mesquite in the south-west was very important to the native Americans. They would pound it and make flour out of it and eat the flour.
China Ranch is located in a canyon that was carved down into an ancient freshwater lake. About 10-12 million years ago, this area was a lake. Then the conditions changed and the lake dried up, and it became a dry lake, or a “playa”, and then erosion has cut down this canyon through the material that had piled up for millions of years at the bottom of this freshwater lake. The surrounding hillsides are still very soft; they were never consolidated into hard rock. They also have a certain amount of minerals and salts, gypsum and borax and a few other things, which is one of the reasons this area was popular for mining explorations during the 1800s.
We are walking down this little dirt lane on China Ranch. This is the main date growing area. You can see all the palm trees – we have about 1200 date palm trees planted. Many of them have fruit on them this time of year, and if people come to visit, this one of the little walks they can take to explore the ranch. Or there are trails that go out into the surrounding areas, which is all public land, it’s very interesting for exploration in the winter months when the weather is cool.
Down the road, a few hundred metres, we’ll go by a little house that sometimes functions as a bed and breakfast, and the woman has some Indian tepees and people can stay in those. That’s kind of an interesting thing also.
One of the interesting things about the ranch is that we have gone out and found a lot of varieties of dates that a lot of other growers have given up on, because they’re very delicate and difficult to handle. These are called Khadrawys, they come from Iraq originally. It’s a very nice date. Here at the ranch we grow about 15 different types and we’ve got a lot of signs up so people can see the names and learn a little bit about that particular variety. Then they can go back to the gift shop and we have free samples of all of the different types of dates as well as the date bread and cookies.
This is the old original ranch house. It was built in the 1920s. We rent this out now to a woman called Cynthia who has put up three American-Indian tepees in the backyard, which she rents out to people. These are modern American-Indian tepees.
China Ranch was also a water-stop for pioneers who were crossing the desert in the early days when this was part of Spain and then part of Mexico. There was a trail that went across the desert, between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. It was called “The Spanish Trail”. In order to get across the desert and survive, they had to know where the water was, so they always went from water hole to water hole, and China Ranch was one of the stopping points, and so some very famous figures in American Western history stopped by here for a day or two to rest and to water and feed their horses. People like Kit Carson, who was a famous scout, or John Freemont, or Brigham Young, who was one of the founders of the Mormon Church. When they were exploring the West, a lot of very famous people stopped here briefly to rest on their way east or west.
One of the things that makes China Ranch unique is our little running stream, which is called Willow Creek, and this pathway goes along the creek and we have signage telling people about the different plants and the animals. It’s a very simple, primitive trail, and we have left it that way because we want people to have a bit of an adventure, discover some things for themselves. It’s very unusual to find this kind of thick, lush growth and running water in the Mojave Desert. It’s very special when you remember that we’re right on the edge of Death Valley National Park, which is one of the hottest and driest places in the entire world, and here we are walking through a little jungle, with running water and little native fish that live in the stream. If we get further up the path here, it’ll open up and you’ll be able to see the running water, and the little fish perhaps.
It’s a very special area ecologically also. We have some birds that fly all the way up here from Central America – places like Panama and Costa Rica – to build their nests here in the springtime and raise their young, and then they leave and go back to Central America. These wet canyons here in the Mojave Desert are very special little ecological niches, so they’re very important from that point of view also.
We renovating this small building and made a small museum in here to tell people a bit about the ranch and its history. So they can come and see some early American Indian artefacts, and some pictures that tell a little bit about the history of the ranch. Out front here, we have this line of numbered rocks. This area is known for its geology, and beginning with number one there, that material there is about 1.5 billion years old. It recounts a very large history of the Earth all the way through. People can get a little interpretive brochure right here where I explain what each of the different kinds of rocks are, and their origin and their age and what-not. This is a good portion of the history of the Earth, going back over a billion years, all the way up to exhibit number 15, which is the human contribution.
We just have old photographs telling people about the history of the ranch and some early pictures of the property. Native American artefacts – if you look here, you can see a grinding stone, and here is a collection of arrowheads and knives and tools that we have found on the property over the years. So people have been living in this canyon for at least 5,000-10,000 years, and this is evidence of that.
This area is our nursery where we raise the young palm trees for sale to the public. So we take the young trees off of the parent trees and we’ll put them in these pots. Most of them will root and live, and we sell these trees like this or like this. So if a person owns a home in a warm area and warm climate and they’re interested in having a date palm tree, we can provide that for them. We also raise and sell a lot of small cacti. We have many different kinds, and we sell these also, for a modest price, to people who may want to take one home and raise it.
This is machinery where we sort the dates and we wash them and we pick out the good ones from the bad ones, and separate the large ones and the small ones. We store them in 15-pound boxes, which we put in here. Our final product looks like this. This is a dry variety, some are much more moist, for example if you look at these here, you can see how those are much more moist and shiny. We will harvest about 20,000 kilos this year, and we store them in this very cool room until we take them out and sell them.
We’re now in the gift shop and bakery here at China Ranch. We have a kitchen over here where we bake daily – we make our date bread and cookies and we make date milkshakes. These are samples of our date bread on this side, and our date cookies here, people can sample them for free. Right now we have three different varieties of dates, and again, people are welcome to come and get samples of those. So when people come here they can learn about the product and they can sample them, and hopefully they will decide to buy them. Over here on the shelf are some of our products. This is the bread, we have two different sizes of date bread, and again, we bake it right here. And these muffins, and cookies with dates and walnuts and chocolate or vanilla chips, and then boxes of a dozen cookies also, down here. So we bake all things dates. We have a selection of things, as well as cold drinks. We sell most of our products right here on the farm. We will probably harvest about 20,000 kilos of dates this year and we will sell all of it, we sell out of our product every year. We have cans and jars of all sorts of fruits and vegetables.
Back here – souvenirs. I’m going to plug in the light here. We’ve got little country keepsakes and south-western art and all sorts of things. There’s a lot of stuff in here. People come from all over the United States. In the cold weather time, people come down to the Mojave Desert, so we get a lot of visitors in the winter months especially. And for them to see something from Mexico or the South West, with palm trees or cactuses, that’s very different for them.
We’d like to invite everyone, from all over the world, to come and visit China Ranch. You can find us on the internet at www.chinaranch.com. Thank you, I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit to China Ranch. Au revoir! Ciao.