Robert Lower has created a thriving farm in the desert using sustainable design and cultivation methods such as permaculture and eco-dynamics. His soaring date trees and fragrant citrus grove is evocative of an ancient Mesopotamian garden oasis.
Situated in Coachella, California, is a lush desert plantation of date and citrus trees at Robert Lower’s Flying Disc Ranch. Founded in 1979, the ranch was built using permaculture design and now employs, what Robert calls, eco-dynamic practices to cultivate dates and fruits.
The beauty of dates
The history of this wonderful desert fruit goes back thousands of years, sporting a legacy of being one of the oldest cultivated crops. Throughout the centuries, date trees have been grown not only for their fruit’s enrapturing flavor but also for their palm leaves which provide material for building homes and thatched roofs, brooms, rugs, and mattresses—still made today in certain parts of the world.
Sweet like honey and deliciously chewy, dates brag an astonishingly high nutritional value rich in vitamins and minerals. Robert refers to dates as the “bread of the desert” and chose them not only for their taste but out of reverence for the simple fact that, in an age of GMO crops, the date tree cannot be hybridized. Every seed produced by a female date palm will give fruit to a different style of date—ever increasing the plant’s diversity so that today there are thousands of varieties of the fruit all over the world.
To replicate a desired date palm, a clipping from the original female palm’s roots must be cut and planted. This means that the varieties of dates we eat today can trace their origins back to one single date palm. The Medjhool date, for instance, can trace its lineage to an 18th century female date palm grown in Bau Deneb, Morrocco.
Flying Disc offers a variety of dates, including Medjhool, Derri, Barhi, Zahidi, Deglet Noor and a few unique varieties that were cultivated on the farm—Amber, Long Skinny, Cire and Blonde Bombshell.
Although based on biodynamic principles, Flying Disc Ranch promotes itself as an eco-dynamic farm to describe its environmentally responsible and polyculture farming practices. Flying Disc utilizes an edible forest design in which a variety of different fruit trees are chosen for their mutually beneficial properties—grown together through a practice called companion planting. This edible oasis not only grows dates but citrus, guavas, mangoes, pomegranates and fig trees, as well as grapes and flowering cacti.
Amidst these trees laden with fruit is a green floor of living mulch created from the farm’s grass clippings. This living mulch helps the soil retain its moisture, attracts beneficial insects, and offers protection from the harsh desert climate. It also keeps the ground from absorbing too much sunlight, allowing the dates to ripen slowly—giving them a rich, sweet flavor.
This will be the first year that the farm will be going vegan. Robert has decided to omit the use of animal manure from their compost fertilizer on account of his goal to rely less on imported inputs—preferring instead a more self sufficient model of farming.
Are they organic dates?
At one time Flying Disc Ranch was certified organic but Robert decided to withdraw from the certification due to a conflict of principles. According to Robert, the certifier backed the use of growth regulators such as gibberellic acid and sulfur dioxide, which is used on fruit to increase its shelf life.
“There are two kinds of organics—there is new organics and old organics. And I don’t think there is ever going to be a harmony between them,” commented Robert on the direction in which certification has taken organic principles.
Robert is one of many farmers who have decided against the certification—many of whom employ land stewardship that, in most cases, goes beyond certified organic standards. These farmers rely instead on their reputation as environmentally responsible businesses and promote an open door policy for their customers to take tours of their farms.
In our interview, Robert commented that one of the most pressing ways in which consumers could make their food systems more sustainable is simply through spreading their insights on different food products. If one out of a hundred consumers can go on a tour of a farm and see first hand the practices used to grow their food, then that information could be disseminated to their friends and family. Farms like Flying Disc, which use environmentally responsible practices, would garner a larger consumer support base while farms which employ detrimental or inhumane practices would be weeded out through this open access to information (as we’ve seen in consumers’ responses to the recent limelight shed on ‘pink slime’).
At a farmers market near you
In the US, farmers are able to participate in any farmers market within their state, which in the case of California, is quite a large region to which Flying Disc supplies their dates. The ranch sells at farmers markets in Santa Monica, Palm Desert, La Quinto, San Francisco, Menlo Park, Santa Cruz, Marin, Palo Alto, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Berkeley.
Photo credit: Flying Disc Ranch
Christina Kelso of Flying Disk Ranch recommends: The Survival of Civilization Depends Upon Our Solving Three Problems: Carbon Dioxide, Investment Money and Population – Selected Papers of John D. Hamaker