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California fig grower sees success from Mexican deal

California-based grower Vertical Foods has declared their first Mexico fig season a success. The company, which also grows figs in California and imports them from Chile, launched their Mexico fig deal last November, with the conclusion at the end of April. Along with some of the more obvious advantages compared with the Chilean deal, Vertical Foods also found some unexpected benefits.

"This year we had a successful Mexican black fig season," explained Vertical Foods' Casey Hollnagel. "It was our first year, and it directly competes with the Chilean season. We grow them in Morelos, a region quite close to Mexico City. USDA regulations stipulate that fruit from this region must be irradiated before entering the United States. We found that this process killed all of the pathogens from the figs and eliminated microorganisms and insects. As a result, we observed the figs had a longer shelf life. This is as opposed to figs from Chile, which need to be fumigated with methyl bromide. Part of this process involves raising the temperature before dropping it back down. Unfortunately, figs are very sensitive and changing the temperature has the consequence of a reduced shelf life."

Hollnagel further noted that bringing in figs from Mexico has the more evident advantage in regards to cost. "Because the figs arrive by land in trucks, and not by air like the Chilean figs, Vertical Foods was able to bring in much larger volumes, and it was obviously much cheaper to do so," he said. "Those savings enabled us to pass them on to our customers. Moving forward, we can see the Mexico deal being a very good alternative."

Preparing for the California crop
Now that the offshore fig season has concluded, Vertical Foods is looking forward to the upcoming California season. Beginning next month, early indications are that the crop is looking good, with possibly a slightly later start than normal. 

"At this stage, the California season looks to be fairly normal," Hollnagel observed. "The fig trees were not affected by any of the freezes or wet weather earlier in the year, as they were dormant at the time. We will be starting off with the Breba crop, which is an early season variety that generally only grows for a very short time. Current predictions are for a start somewhere between June 10 and 15, which would put it about a week behind schedule. Figs are a mysterious fruit and we can only speculate as to why this is the case. Furthermore, things can change very quickly, however right now volume is looking good."

Managing the rapid seasons
Because figs only grow during a relatively short season in California, managing retail programs can become a challenge. Because many big retailers are not as nimble as smaller stores, figs are sometimes found only in those small stores capable and willing to carry them. The market though, is mostly strong, due to good demand and the generally limited availability.

"With the Breba season, because it grows for such a short time, by the time bigger stores are ready to carry them, they're often already finished," Hollnagel remarked. "Sometimes the season can be as short as ten days, so with that time frame, it's very hard to get any sort of programs going. Hence, they are usually sold to wholesalers. The second season, our main crop, can go from four to eight weeks, so with this one we can plan better."

"Although Central Valley figs are yet to commence, there are reports that some growers in the desert have just started their season," he continued. "They will get a premium price for them. For us, because the Mexico deal has finished and created a small gap, it provides a good opportunity to clear out inventories and prevent any crossover before the California season begins next month." 

For more information:
Casey Hollnagel
Vertical Foods LLC
Tel: +1 (559) 743-0100

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