Sweet Dreams Come True
By Regional Advocate, Jennifer Clark
Have you ever tasted a fresh date picked right from the tree? I got to do just that when I visited Sam Cobb Farms, located in Desert Hot Springs, CA, in January. Sam Cobb personally showed me around his 300-tree date farm and described the long and complex process of raising fruit-producing date palms. Throughout the tour, Cobb shared engaging stories of his long road to farming and some of the challenges along the way.
When he saw his first tractor at age 3, Cobb knew he wanted to be a farmer. However, this was not an easy career choice, as most small farms in the US are family-owned and passed down from generation to generation. Cobb’s parents were not farmers and had no farmland, which was his first hurdle. In high school, he began taking every agriculture-related course offered. Additionally, he focused on public speaking and debate. Those skills paid off when he joined Future Farmers of America and became their public speaking champion. He was awarded a college scholarship for his academic successes and public speaking accomplishments, making it possible for Cobb to earn dual degrees in Agronomy and Agricultural Education.
Though excited to put his knowledge to use, Cobb’s early attempts to make a living as a fulltime farmer were unsuccessful. Thankfully, his skillset was in demand at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services. He began working there to pay the bills, while still maintaining a connection to agriculture.
Cobb’s work had brought him to La Quinta, CA, located in the Coachella Valley, which, according to NPR, produces 90% of the dates grown in the US. He began learning about date farming and was fascinated by its complexity. When a small piece of land became available for sale, Cobb convinced his wife they should buy it and start a date farm. It required planning and patience, as it takes 21 years for a date tree to reach maturity and produce commercially viable fruit. Both Cobb and his wife continued their day jobs and tended the farm in their spare time.
In 2019 Cobb was able to retire from the USDA after 30 years of service and realize his dream of farming fulltime. While he works the farm with his family, he shared this is also a source of concern. Like so many farmers of this generation, Cobb is faced with the fact that his children may not want to maintain the farm after he’s gone because it is such a difficult life. It was heartbreaking to hear that after breaking into the industry without inheritance, he may not be able to pass it on.
According to the USDA, the number of family farms decreased by 4% between 2012 and 2017, while the number of large, non-family farms grew 18% during the same period. There are many challenges in agriculture for small family-owned farms, which the USDA says account for 88% of total US farms, though produce only 19% of the output.
Many aspects of farming, including land acquisition, financing, labor, crop insurance, water availability and costs, and marketing, are deterrents for his children to seek a farming profession. For example, while Cobb employs pesticide-free farming practices, he is not able to market his produce as organic because the cost of certification is prohibitive. Other farmers including Sam Rudolph, owner of PNW Grateful Gardens in Snohomish, WA and Aashay Salva, owner of Aash Farms in Woodinville, WA, have raised this issue to me as a barrier to marketing their crops as organic, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage against larger industrial growers.
Whether or not the farm will outlive him, Cobb is making an impact on the industry. He is believed to be the only Black date farmer in the US. And while he grows several of the most popular date varietals including Medjool and Barhi, he has established his own unique varietal only available at Sam Cobb Farms called Black Gold. Cobb has been able to purchase additional land in Blythe, CA to expand his crop output, though those trees will take many more years to produce viable fruit. He hopes to hire staff, in addition to his family, in the upcoming season, especially as the number of trees increase. His passion for farming, dates, and spreading a love for agriculture is simply undeniable. He just cannot stop smiling when talking about Sam Cobb Farms. Sweet dreams really can come true.
Jennifer.Clark@sba.gov currently serves as the Regional Advocate for Region 10 covering Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Please feel free to contact our regional advocates to share your small business’s regulatory burdens or concerns.