From California to Europe, groups are proclaiming 2011 to be the year of the fig, but no one let the figs know.
The sweet, nutritious fruit is somewhat fashionably late this season because of the cool, wet spring in California. Depending on which grower you ask, the first crop of California figs started coming in anywhere from a few days to as much as three weeks late.
But fig fans say the wait is worth it.
“We just finally got our first figs of the season in our office two days ago,” said California Fig Advisory Board chief executive officer Karla Stockli on June 17. “They were a little late, but they had the best flavor I’ve tasted in years.”
The fig board didn’t realize the crop would arrive late when they declared 2011 the year of the fig. But they did know the fruit would get a special boost this year after two culinary organizations proclaimed the fig as the No. 1 emerging fruit, relative to increased use and growth in popularity.
That proclamation came from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Atlanta, and Les Dames d’Escoffier International, Louisville, Ky. “This increased interest should help us with our biggest challenge,” Stockli said, “which is to liberate the fig from the Newton.”
Stockli and several California growers said they expected overall volumes to be close to last year’s, though the first crop may be a little off.
Despite being a week late, grower George Kragie, president of Madera, Calif.,-based Western Fresh Marketing Services Inc., said the figs in his first crop were looking a little larger than usual.
The trees have a lot of new growth on them, which should produce a large second crop, Kragie added.
At Stellar Distributing, Madera, Calif., director of business development Casey Hollnagel said on June 17 that the first crop was up to three weeks late.
“Normally, we would have been picking black missions by now,” he said. “The rain didn’t hurt the figs, but the cool May slowed them down. Prices are looking normal, though.”
One-layer flats of size 35 brown turkey figs from California brought $31 in Baltimore, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cartons of 24 14-ounce packages film-wrapped calmyrna figs brought $62. Flats of 12 8-ounce lidded containers of brown turkeys brought $24.
Further north, at Passion Fruit Farms in Merced, Calif., third-generation grower-owner Tonetta Simone Gladwin said on June 17 that she hadn’t been able to start harvesting.
Passion Fruit Farms grows mostly black missions and brown turkeys, and Gladwin said she is seeing growing interest in the fruit.
She already sends many of her figs to Canada — as do most California growers. Toronto is particularly fig-aware, she said, partly because of the international tone of the city and the presence of ethnic groups from Europe who are used to eating fresh figs and cooking with them year-round.
Down south, in the Imperial Valley, Kevin Herman, owner and president of The Specialty Crop Co. said his crews have been picking in some orchards since mid-May. Herman oversees about 4,500 acres of figs, which he said is about half the fig acreage in the state.
The first crop in Herman’s southernmost orchards also looks like it will be slightly down in terms of volume, but he said the fruit is looking very good qualitywise and the trees are in great shape for the second crop, which he expects to be on time in August.
He said he was a bit concerned about how prices would run, though, partly because of imports from Chile.
In his role with the industry as chairman of the Fresh Fig Commission and vice chairman of the Dried Fig Commission, Herman has been keeping a close eye on the first season of fresh fig imports from Chile. The deal was just winding down as the California crops started coming in.
“I think our prices began a little lower this year because of some poor-quality fruit out of Chile,” Herman said. “But as our fruit hits the market, the prices should come back up as people taste the better figs.”
Others in the California fig industry expressed similar concerns about the quality of the Chilean fresh figs and the impact that could have on consumers in the U.S.
Hollnagel at Stellar Distributing and Stockli at the fig board both agreed low-quality fruit from Chile could turn off inexperienced fig eaters in the U.S.
Hollnagel said the Chileans were at a disadvantage because they had to fumigate their fruit, which shortened its shelf-life — already short because of travel time from South America.
“Their price point was so high that I don’t know if many consumers were interested,” Hollnagel said. “It’s kind of a niche market in the off season. Some restaurants need them year-round for certain gourmet dishes they have on their menus, and they are willing to pay top prices to have the fruit when they need it.”
Kragie, who imported some of the Chilean figs through Western Fresh, agreed that the imported figs were at a disadvantage because of the fumigation requirement, but he said he expected increasing cooperation between Chilean and Californian growers.
That could mean better prices for growers, he said. “It’s kind of like gasoline,” Kragie said. “When it’s $4 a gallon, you can’t believe it and then it drops to $3.79 and you think you’ve gotten a really good price because you have forgotten what gas prices were just a few years ago.
“I think the same kind of thing could happen with the figs. If the Chileans keep their prices up, then maybe consumers will get used to seeing (the higher prices), and we can get our pricing up off the floor.”