Sam Cobb in his date orchard in Desert Springs, Calif. Photo credit: Sam Cobb Farm Trip Advisor page.

The most delicious California dates are grown by a Black farmer. Meet Sam Cobb

Patience is an understatement when you hear the story of how one farmer pivoted his farming practices to grow one of the slowest products in agribusiness. But, it was worth the wait.

In 1984, Sam Cobb was fresh out of Fresno State (CSU Fresno) with a degree in agriculture. Newly married, with the world as his calabash dish, he had also just secured a parcel of land in central California. Finally, he was carrying out a vision he’d held since he was a young boy. He was a farmer.

A local news station captured the young Fresno native shortly after his purchase. “All the time when I was growing up, I had close contact with farmers,” said Cobb. One of his friends’ fathers was in agriculture. He’d learned that when they rode their bikes to his buddy’s home. The craft fascinated Cobb so much, he held onto that dream until he was able to purchase a small parcel right after college.

How Cobb nabbed his land was by chance. One day he drove by some acreage near a water pump, which is an ideal location for a farm; especially for the arid climate of the region. Explaining what he called “positive thinking,” and well-played strategy, he investigated to see if the pump worked. After receiving confirmation, he looked up the owner at the local assessor’s office and made a bid, which was accepted.

So there he was, barely into his 20s, engaging in a trade that his Mississippi forebears did before him. Cobb’s family is one of millions of African Americans who migrated to California during the great migration. California is often left out of the Great Exodus story, but like many who lived on the left side or close to the Mississippi River, Cobb’s family found their home on the West Coast.

Author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson who captures the mass migration in her book, Warmth of Other Suns, described the resettlement as “a redistribution of the South and the North.” A 55-year span of relocation, nearly half of African Americans who lived in the south left to either the East, Midwest or West coast.

Since many African Americans who migrated were from the agrarian south, places like Fresno were a comfortable fit. Part of California’s massive agricultural industry, farming has been a central business for the city. Unfortunately, agribusiness was not the only part of southern culture transported to the state.

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After Cobb started growing vegetables, a harvest or two into his business, he realized that his revenue was not as hardy as his crops. “The processing plant took most of my profit,” Cobb told Ark Republic. Processing plants are the facilities where farmers must take their food to get treated in order for it to be sold at the commercial level. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are 36,486 food and beverage processing establishments, owned by about 31,401 companies in 2017. Most processing plants are white-owned.

Initially, unbeknownst to Cobb, the food processing facility he used for his produce took the lion’s share of his earnings through unethical and deceptive business practices. The owner of the plant was white.

Black farmers tell a history of being undermined by white agricultural companies from seed to processing. Kara Boyd, the wife of John Wesley Boyd Jr. who is head of Black Farmers Association, told AP News of a time that her husband took a load of soybeans to a local processing facility. He was given a low price because he was told that it contained moisture and trash. When Kara, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, took a load from the same crop, she received more money. Next, her white stepfather took another load from the same harvest, but was given a hefty price. Contrastingly, the facility operators paused him as bringing the best grain they’d ever seen.

In the case of Cobb, the repeated stealing of profits resulted in his business crumbling. “In five years I was bankrupt.” 

Losing his land was a major blow. “I talked to my wife [and asked her] please don’t leave me,” recalled Cobb. “I figured we were young and could start over again. Thankfully, she believed me.”

The Cobbs devised a plan. Save. Buy land. Repeat. With a growing family and bills to boot, Maxine worked then eventually earned a degree to further her career. Sam also scored a gig at the USDA. “We bought a 1964 Buick from the [local] garage . . . and lived like we only had one income.”

Years into their plan, they purchased two 3-acre plots in Desert Springs in 2002. Sam leveled the land then put in an irrigation system. In 2003, he planted several date tree shoots given to him from another farmer. Then they waited 21 years.

It takes 21 years for a date plant to fully mature. During that time they grew their orchard. Gradually, they bought more land and began to take the pups of the date plants to expand the grove. Maintaining the process for two more cycles, Sam and Maxine patiently farmed for over two decades using non-chemical methods to produce a superior fruit. When they went to the market they sold sweetest, tastiest California Medjool dates.

Sam Cobb by one of his trees in his date grove. He is one of the most successful U.S. based date growers and the only Black farmer raising and selling dates. (Top Right): Sam and Maxine Cobb in the grove. (Bottom Right) The Cobb family. Photo credits: Sam Cobb website

Today, Sam Cobb Farms yields 60 acres of dates with 20 acres in production. Now, he grows seven varieties of dates: (Medjool, Black Gold, Barhi, Safari, Empress, Candi and Zahedi). His most popular are the prized Medjool, which are requested globally. Other popular dates are the Black Gold, Barhi and Safari.

This past winter, he was one of 10 farmers featured in the Black Farmers Index inaugural food box called Vittles. Notably, he is the only Black farmer who grows dates in the U.S. Following his feature, his dates became sought after by Muslim communities. Donna Auston, an American anthropologist who focuses on the African American muslim community, sampled Cobb’s dates from a Vittles box and gave a “shout a wonderful resource” on social media.

“I got so many calls for dates for Ramadan,” said Cobb. “I even got a big order from someone at New York University.”

Like his order, Cobb’s date farm is blossoming even more. The dates have become so fruitful in multiplying that he is now figuring out a way to sell the shoots. To add, his farm tour side of the company has picked up. From October to April he offers guests to visit both of his properties. “I get calls all the time to see the farm,” mentioned Cobb as he had to hurry off of the phone to fill some orders before getting back on the tractor.

After 30 years, Cobb deserves all of the business he can get. What makes it better? His dates are really good. As his tagline goes, “We grow good dates.” Yes indeed.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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