Brown turkey figs grow in California. ( Courtesy Western Fresh Marketing )

California fresh figs started later and light volume traded at historically high prices this spring. However, marketers in late June predicted good quality and more normal supply levels are anticipated beginning in late July.

The average U.S. terminal market price for California figs through June 22 this year was $67.52 per carton, up from the 2017 all-year average of $45.44 per carton, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market News Service.

The timing of the 2018 fresh fig season in California is more like seasons of 10 or 20 years ago, with production about two weeks behind the pace of the past five years, said Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager for Stellar Distributing Inc., Madera, Calif.

Light volume in June led to high prices, he said, perhaps the highest for June in the past 30 years.

The first-harvested crop of fresh figs was very light but the second crop looks normal, he said.

“We should have good quantities and everything looks to be doing quite well,” Cappelluti said.

 

Fig acreage stats

California ranks first in the nation in fig production, accounting for nearly 98% of all U.S. figs produced, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.

The USDA reported there were 6,100 bearing acres of figs in the U.S. in 2016, and growers marketed 31,600 tons of figs. Of that total, 26,700 tons (84%) were processed.

Total fresh output has remained steady in recent years, though bearing acreage has declined slightly with improving yields, according to the USDA. Fresh fig production in 2016 was 4,900 tons, according to the USDA, or about 10 million pounds.

The USDA reported the average terminal market price for California figs (all types) was $45.44 per carton in 2017, up from $43.76 per carton in 2016.

 

Timing

George Kragie, president of Madera-based Western Fresh Marketing, said the company has been packing brown turkey figs out of the California desert region since the end of May. The desert crop was about a week later than normal, he said.

Harvest in the desert region will continue until the beginning of August, when harvest curtails because of the heat. Harvest in the desert will resume later in the year.

Black mission harvest in the Central Valley started in late June.

“It’s a little bit of a lighter crop and a little bit later crop,” Kragie said. “But the prices are very, very good.”

Kragie said Kern County black mission figs would normally slide right on top of the beginning of the Central Valley production in Madera and Chowchilla, but this year there was a gap of about a week.

Supplies of Central Valley figs will be marketed until about Thanksgiving.

The first crop of black mission figs was peaking and was expected to decline in late June, said Chris DeBenedetto, sales director for J&R Orchards, Chowchilla, Calif.

His company’s main crop starts at the end of July or early August, he said. The firm will pick until about mid-October, he said.

The main fig varieties include black mission, sierras, brown turkey and kadota, with the tiger variety also significant.

DeBenedetto said that it impossible to say now if the fig crop will be up or down compared with a year ago, but he said growing conditions have been favorable.

Lack of any extremely hot weather through late June was positive, he said.

“During the growing season we actually had pretty good cool weather — trees look pretty healthy, so I would say it’s going to be a good crop, probably better than last year,” he said.

 

Labor, demand

Fresh fig harvest is done by hand and DeBenedetto said fig trees can be picked five or six times over the course of the season.

Some growers field pack and others have a centralized packing facility, he said, typically depending on how close their growing operations are to each other.

Industry-wide labor for fig harvest is expected to be sufficient, but cherries can steal workers early in the fig season and grapes later in the season, he said.

Every celebrity chef, every food editor in the U.S. is on the fig bandwagon. It is just an extremely versatile piece of fruit.

 variety of packaging options are available throughout the industry, from the 1-pound clamshell to the 8-ounce clamshell to the basket value pack, the half tray, full tray and other niche packs.

DeBenedetto said demand is strongest for fresh figs on the coasts, from Florida up the East Coast and Los Angeles to Seattle on the West Coast.

Kragie said figs have been riding a hot streak of popularity.

“Every celebrity chef, every food editor in the U.S. is on the fig bandwagon,” he said. “It is just an extremely versatile piece of fruit.”

 

Challenges

Challenges to fig production in California mainly relate to labor costs and the high cost of doing business, DeBenedetto said.

Expanded competition in Canada, an important export market for California, also has been a factor for marketers in the past decade, he said.

Canada imports fresh figs from Israel, Spain and Turkey, he said.

In the U.S., imports of fresh figs in 2017 totaled 920,000 pounds from Mexico, 150,000 pounds from Chile and 150,000 pounds from Peru.

That is much higher than 2010, when Mexico shipped only 50,000 pounds and Chile 10,000 pounds to the U.S.

The expansion of imports in the off season may have diminished some of the seasonality appeal of fresh figs, DeBenedetto said.

“A lot of retailers like year-round product, but I kind of like having something where there are gaps so people want the fruit and maybe they’d be more willing to pay for California (fruit),” he said.

 
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