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(Published: 2009-04-01)

Every once in awhile during my travels I come upon an amazing story that I can’t resist sharing. This one is about dates, and a farm boy from Iowa named Floyd Shields. There’s enough persistence, perspiration and paradox in this story to inspire and motivate anyone contemplating a big move or considering a new career opportunity.

Floyd was a classic entrepreneur, creating something out of nothing, in the middle of nowhere. He was also a brilliant educator, a clever self-promoter, and an intuitive marketer. I learned about Floyd when I visited Shield’s Date Garden ( <> ) on US Highway 111 in Indio, CA. What lured me in off the highway was the promise of “the world’s best date shake” and a FREE movie titled “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date.”

Floyd and his wife Bess came to the Coachella Valley west of Palm Springs, California, on Christmas day, 1924, with the idea that it might be fun to try their hand at date gardening. (For some reason, they don’t call it farming.)

It was quite a gamble. The date is one of the oldest known cultivated tree crops. It’s also one of the least understood and one of the most expensive to cultivate. The date palm is dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female plants, and only females bear fruit. Mother Nature made no adequate provision to pollinate the females, so Floyd took matters into his own hands. (Talk about overcoming obstacles.)

In order to cultivate marketable crops, offshoots are removed from the parent plants and then transplanted, 48 females to one male per acre. As the offshoots grow into trees, permanent ladders are attached and moved up every year. Each crop, workers climb up the male trees, cut their blossoms and climb down to harvest the pollen. Then they climb up each female tree and manually pollinate every female blossom, individually, by hand. (Talk about being proactive.)

Now here’s the paradox part. The date palm is a desert plant, but it requires as much water as a willow. The Moroccans have a saying: “A date palm must have its feet in the water and its head in the fire of heaven.” Floyd created an irrigation system to bring water from the Colorado River over 200 miles away so he could keep the date gardens wringing wet at all times. (Talk about going the extra mile.)

Ironically, rain is the worst enemy of a new date crop. To protect the ripening fruit against summer rains and birds, workers climb back up the palm trees and put protective paper covers over the date bunches during July and August. (Talk about inconvenience.)

The dates start to ripen by the end of August, and from then until Christmas the trees are picked several times, by hand, then sorted and graded, by hand. Turns out dates don’t ripen in bunches like bananas do. (Talk about detail-oriented.)

Floyd’s persistence and hard work paid off with a successful date crop and a fledgling new agri-business. As the popularity of his roadside stand grew, he worked hard to educate his customers about date culture. In the beginning, he gave lectures titled “The Romance and Sex Life of the Date” out in the gardens. Eventually he created a slide show and recorded his presentation so it could be run several times a day. Today, customers can enjoy a 15-minute film of the same name that runs continuously during store hours. (This is the clever marketing part.)

Why am I sharing all this information? Yes, dates are healthy—fat-free, cholesterol-free, sodium free, and a good source of fiber. They have more potassium than bananas. But honestly, I’m not trying to start a date trend here. I just want you to be inspired.

The next time you think about something that you want to do, or a change you want to make that you think is too difficult to attempt, think about Floyd. Think about The Romance and Sex Life of the Date, OK?

(By the way, the date shakes are delicious!)

Date palms with ladders.

Shield's Date Farm.

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