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California is only US growing area for dried figs

Consumer education is biggest challenge within the dried fig category

At one time figs seemed relegated to bar cookies and Figgy pudding, but today they’re branching out in other consumable applications, from ice cream and salads, to sauces and a rightful place on cheese platters everywhere. 

Hearty tree fruit
Figs are one of the few tree fruits and crops that weren’t susceptible to California’s weather hardships over the past few months, unlike apples, plums and apricots. Figs are inverted flowers; there’s no blossom on the tree. “It’s not dependent on bee pollination. The early feedback we're hearing is that it looks like a really good crop,” said Linda Cain of Valley Fig Growers. “We’re looking forward to having a decent sized crop this year.” Cain says early projections point to a California dried fig crop that’s slightly less than 9,000 tons: “a modest bump up from last year.” Valley Fig’s fruit is grown within a 200-mile radius of Fresno, California. 

Harvest & Drying process
It’s the only area in the US where dried figs are commercially grown and processed. Figs dry naturally on the tree and then fall to the ground where they can be harvested for the dried market. “We really need those 110 degree temperatures that we get (here) she said, because a dry heat helps them dry while they’re still clinging onto the branches. Once harvested, they’re sorted in sheds and cleaned, delivered to the plant for further processing. “It’s not a terribly sophisticated process; it goes back to early processing methodology,” she explained. Though the only difference today is the use of mechanized harvesting instead of manual labor. “As a cooperative Valley Fig Growers handles only dried California figs, but some of our growers handle both dried and fresh figs. Finding sufficient labor is always a challenge.” 

Growers in both fresh and dried markets
Figs are extremely fragile in their fresh condition. From the time they’re picked to consumption is only about a five to seven day window. This is another reason she says most growers produce for both dried and fresh markets: once they dry on the tree they’re easier to handle. Valley Fig’s dried fruit is put into cold storage until it's ready to be processed – it also maintains the color and flavor of the fruit where it needs to be. Fruit goes into many different applications, from cookies, sauces and cereal to ice cream and she say figs pair amazingly well with cheeses. The Blue Ribbon Orchard Choice and Sun-Maid brands of dried figs are distributed to major retailers within the US. 

Fresh figs come into season in late May. First crop appears on “old wood,” which Cain explains are last season’s branches. The second (main) crop comes on from mid to late June until the first frost in late October. It’s a more prolific crop with higher yields due to more new growth of branches to increase the growing space for the figs.

California's figs are flavourful and more traceable than competition
There’s an increased demand for dried figs, based on the Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data Cain receives. “We’re one of the few items within the dried category that’s showing continuous movement upwards.” What she feels makes California’s fruit stand out over imports like competition from Turkey is the quality, flavor and traceability factors. “California figs are second to none,” she said, because of the processing and the level of attention paid to the fruit itself. It goes through a rigorous inspection. Nothing goes out the door without having an inspection done from the Safe Food Alliance, formerly known as the Dried Fruit Association. “That tends to lend itself to much better quality.” 

Consumer education ongoing necessity
It’s not weather, but consumer education that’s their biggest challenge. Creating more awareness about figs and how good they are and their use in many applications is what the focus is on. Even though dried figs make up only three to four per cent of the dried fruit category that also includes raisins, prunes, apricots, once people try figs they’re pretty enthusiastic about them. Figs have more fiber than prunes and more potassium than bananas. “We’re encouraging customers to recognize that there are not only quality differences versus imported figs but also the positive aspect of traceability and more implied endorsement of the quality they’ll receive when they open up the package of California figs. Plus, they do taste great." 

For more information:
Linda Cain 
Valley Fig Growers 
Ph: 925-463-7565 

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