Fig growers adjust to meet demand for organic

07/01/2013 12:11:00 PM
Coral Beach

Regardless of the commodity, some growers just don’t think it’s worth the time and trouble to enter the organic arena. That’s not the case for J&R Orchards when it comes to figs.

“We’ve been in as long as I can remember,” said Chris DeBenedetto, marketing director of the family-owned company in Chowchilla, Calif.

“As a grower, figs are one crop you never spray, so the difference in how you handle ground cover is the biggest difference between conventional and organic.”

DeBenedetto said there are other requirements for organics regarding fertilizers and water, but his family has found that the premium prices organic fresh figs command make up for increased production costs.

He said most of the additional cost for their 200 acres of organic figs is related to labor to use weed trimmers instead of herbicides for weed control.

“We have been seeing demand for organic increase steadily, so we are transitioning another 100 acres,” DeBenedetto said. “They will be producing organic figs next year.”

The trees J&R is transitioning to organic are about 20 years old and have been in mature production mode for well more than a decade, DeBenedetto said.

Another fig operation that is seeing increasing organic demand is Stellar Distributing, Madera, Calif.

Sales manager Kurt Cappelluti said Stellar has all of its varieties available in organic. It’s not a huge portion of Stellar’s business, accounting for about 150 acres compared to thousands of conventional figs. However, salesman Brian Lapin said the demand has been consistent and is slowly increasing.

Karla Stockli, chief executive officer for the California Fig Advisory Board, Fresno, said the growers are doing a good job keeping the supply of organic fresh figs in balance with demand.

Overall acres of organic figs are relatively stagnant in the state as some growers pull out of the deal and others like J&R Orchard adjust their acres upward.

One company that handles only organic fresh figs is Earl’s Organic Produce, San Francisco. Fruit buyer Randy Windham said Earl’s is receiving more requests for organic figs, but he’s not sure if it’s more of a reflection of an increasing demand for fresh figs in general or a specific increase in demand for organics.

“Each season is a little different, but we are definitely seeing demand go up. People seem to be more interested and aware of fresh figs each year,” Windham said.

About 90% of Earl’s customers are retailers in the Bay Area.



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