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FRESNO, CA -- The harvest of the 2009 California fresh fig crop was already underway when The Produce News talked to Karla Stockli, chief executive officer of the California Fig Advisory Board and the California Fresh fig Growers Association, here, on Friday, May 15.

The association expects fresh fig shipments for the state to total between 9.5 million and 10.5 million pounds for 2009, similar to or perhaps slightly below last year's shipments of 10.4 million pounds.

Demand for fresh figs has been increasing over the last several years, and California fresh fig production has been growing at a fairly steady pace, with new plantings coming into production. Last year's 10.4 million pounds was "the highest that we have produced as an industry," Ms. Stockli said. This year's volume would have topped that but for some frost damage in March that has reduced the early crop in some areas.

On the other hand, new plantings coming into production and young plantings coming into heavier production will help offset the losses resulting from the frost.

Fig trees produce two crops each year, the first and smaller of the two being called a breba crop. Although there is a short gap between the two crops from any given orchard, due to timing differences of varieties and growing practices, production from one orchard will overlap the gaps in another, resulting in a continuous supply overall.

The frost damage to this year's figs is limited to the early or breba crop and will not affect the later main crop, which had not yet set.

Current producing fig acreage in California is around 11,000 acres. The state produces approximately 22 million pounds of dried figs each year in addition to the fresh fig production.

The fresh fig association is a voluntary marketing order, so assessments and collection of data are not mandatory. Consequently, precise data are not available for fresh shipments for years prior to 2008. However, "last year, we had 100 percent voluntary support," so the shipping data for that year is accurate, Ms. Stockli said. With full industry support again this year, accurate statistical comparisons with the prior year will be possible after the season's end for the first time.

Fresh figs are an important export item, and statistics on exports for past years is available. That data demonstrate that shipments into Canada have increased dramatically over the past five years and now represent "nearly 50 percent of fresh production," Ms. Stockli said.

"Chefs love them," she said. And with the increasing popularity of the Mediterranean diet among consumers and a general trend toward "more fruits and vegetables in the diet ... [that] allows for us to have a little bit more of a marketing message" for fresh figs, which originated in the Mediterranean area.

Due to diversification of growing areas around the state, varietal development, and improvements in cultural practices, the season for the product has expanded. Fresh figs are now available from California from early May until well into January. Growers expect an even earlier start in years ahead, and the ultimate goal is to have the product available year-round.

Dried California figs are already available on a consistent basis throughout the year.

Growers noted that the demand for the commodity for the dried fig market is strong this year, which will result in a good price to growers, giving them an option of where to go with their fruit. The strong dried fig market is expected to help keep prices for fresh figs from dipping to low levels during periods of peak production such as the August-September period.

"We had favorable pricing in 2008 and expect 2009 to be positive as well," said Ms. Stockli.