This year is set to be a great one for figs, with a good harvest set to begin on schedule.

“Last year was incredibly late, about two weeks, and this year we should be 12 to 14 days ahead of that, which will put us right about normal,” said Kevin Herman, owner and president of The Specialty Crop Co., Madera, Calif.

He expects this year’s harvest to provide a good crop to meet a growing demand.

“We’ve had nice, incremental sales increases for quite some time, and we hope that continues again,” Herman said.

Karla Stockli, chief executive officer of the California Fig Advisory Board, Fresno, agrees this year should be a big one.

In 2011, California growers shipped more than 13 million pounds of fresh figs, Stockli said.

She reports that the 2012 supply should exceed that number.

“With the combination of an early spring and above average temperatures, we anticipate outstanding quality and production,” she said.

The harvest began mid-May and should run through December, with each of the five main varieties having a slightly different season.

The tiger fig also is set to have a good year, something growers have been hoping to see for the past two years.

“We’ve been optimistic we’d have more volume, but were finding it was a slow-growing variety that takes longer for maturity. But we feel pretty confident we’ll have decent volumes now for the tiger fig,” he said. “This year looks encouraging.”

The tiger fig variety has been produced in California for about five years, with trees now reaching maturity to produce fruit, but Herman said Specialty Crop Co., which has about 160 acres planted, should have the most volume.

“Other guys maybe have 50 trees or so, so we’ll be the only folks that will have any acreage to speak of,” he said.

This later-maturing variety should be ready around Aug. 1, according to Herman.

Restaurant use for figs continues to grow as well.

“We’ve kind of become the darling of restaurant trade groups, with our fresh picked commission really cultivating those relationships,” Herman said.

“We’re trying to get people excited about using figs as an ingredient,” Herman said.

Those efforts have been largely successful.

He estimates that about 20% of figs go to restaurants, where three to four years ago, that number was closer to 10%.

Potential problems

No major challenges with the crop are expected for this year, and the weather has been pretty normal, according to Herman, but he says that some people are concerned with labor shortages.

“We haven’t experienced that yet, but we’re just getting started,” he said. “So far it looks to be a good year, but it could manifest itself later on.”

Another issue that could cause problems is the effect of opening the U.S. market for Chilean figs.

Herman said he’s concerned this could hurt demand more than it will help.

“They are out of the market now, but their quality hasn’t been very good, and the shelf life is shorter. Now we have to convince people that quality is good again,” he said.

He said the process of conveying that California figs are high in quality could take weeks, an unfortunate byproduct of the imported product.

Since 2011 was the first year for the imports, there’s still a need to differentiate the products.

“We need to work on telling people that these are California-grown,” Herman said.

It’s too early for numbers on how many figs were imported from Chile in 2011, but Stockli agreed the Chilean supply has had some negative effects on the California fresh fig industry.

She said the industry needs to educate media and consumers on the differences between the two groups of figs.

“Our efforts specifically target quality and country of origin,” she said, referencing the motto, “When you think figs, think California.”