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Fig crop similar to last year, with future growth expected

With young acreage coming into production, demand strong and good crops on the trees, there is an on-tree potential for an increase in fresh shipments of California figs for 2013 — but it is a potential unlikely to be realized because several other factors influence the amount of fruit that gets shipped fresh.

Weather is always a caveat. Recent high winds that caused some fruit drop was a reminder of that. With a shortage of available field workers at harvest time this year, the possibility exists that some growers may not be able to get sufficient 04-Figs-Crop This year’s fresh fig harvest is expected to be similar in volume to the last two years, but new plantings should boost production in coming seasons. (Photo courtesy of the California Fig Advisory Board)help when they need it to get their entire crop off of the trees in a timely manner, although it is more likely that they will just have to pay more to get the help they need.

What is different this year compared to many years is that there is a strong demand for figs in the processed market due to the fact that there are virtually no holdover inventories from last year.

Processors, therefore, are expected to be willing to pay more for figs, which will give growers a viable option to the fresh market for fig varieties suitable for both. That competition for the available crop is expected to reduce the volume going into the fresh market and keep fresh market pricing strong.

All factors taken into account, Karla Stockli, chief executive officer of the California Fresh Fig Growers Association and the California Fig Advisory Board, said that fresh shipments for 2013 would probably be similar to last year.

“This year we are looking at approximately 12 million pounds,” Ms. Stockli said. That is about the same as last year, when delivered production was down about 20 percent from expectations due to some extreme heat. It is also similar to 2011, when “we lost about 20 percent of the crop” to early-season rains.

This year’s strong processing demand is a consequence of last year’s processing production being some 700 tons “less than our estimate for dried figs,” according to Ms. Stockli. That processing demand  will keep fresh shipments below their volume potential and below the level of growing market demand, which will also serve to firm prices.

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

This year, “the first crop looks good, a little larger than last year,” Ms. Stockli said.

“The crop looks good, [and] demand is good,” said George Kragie, president of Western Fresh Marketing in Madera, CA. “It certainly looks better than last year.”

Fresh fig volume “may very well be a little lighter” this year, and prices “will probably be higher,” he said. “We have been shipping Chilean fruit right now at very high prices,” and that could continue into the California season.

Marc Marchini, sales and marketing manager for figs at J. Marchini Farms in Le Grand, CA, told The Produce News that although there is strong demand for fresh figs, he expects to see “a short crop across the board this year on all varieties” because of pullouts and other factors.

“This year there is less [producing] acreage … for dried and fresh,” Mr. Marchini said. “I imagine prices are going to be pretty good, and it is going to be hard to find fresh fruit.”

“There have been pullouts,” Ms. Stockli acknowledged. Some of the land “has gone into higher-value crops like almonds and pistachios. Some of it has gone into housing.”

But much of the acreage that has come out has consisted of “less desirable varieties” such as Conadrias, “which go into fig paste,” she said. “We have had a glut the last couple of years with fig paste.” Some of that acreage, growers have replanted with “more desirable varieties.”

Currently, there are more than 1,000 acres of planted figs that are not yet in production. Some of those will come into production this year, and the remainder phase in over the next five years as plantings mature.

About 25 percent of the new plantings are varieties that are exclusively for the fresh market, and the other 75 percent are varieties that can be used either fresh or dried, “so growers can go where the demand is,” Ms. Stockli said.

“So we are encouraged,” she continued. “The growers are investing in their future. They are planting varieties that are popular and in demand. For both fresh and dried figs, demand is up.”

The industry has been “creating new marketing opportunities on the dried side,” with specialty sauces and the niche specialty food category, and that has led to increased demand, she said.

“We’ve got to grow our production to meet that demand,” she said. “That is a commitment growers have made to the industry.”

On the fresh side, demand also continues to increase, as evidenced by the fact that last year, prices held throughout the season. “We didn’t see the normal dip that you usually do when we’ve got more figs on the market” at peak season, she said.

There is strong export demand for California figs as well, Ms. Stockli said.

“We are working on international markets. We are working domestically. As an industry we are looking at our strategic plan five years out,” she said. Currently, “returns to growers are really good,” but the question is “where are we going to peak?”  

The industry needs to produce enough figs to meet the current demand, she said, adding, “As I am out there creating marketing opportunities, I need to say that we are going to have the fruit.”

So the industry is working at identifying the ideal level of production. That question will be addressed at “our annual meeting in June,” said Ms. Stockli.