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Western Fresh will see expanded production in its fig program

“We are excited about the upcoming season. We have additional fruit,” George Kragie, president of Western Fresh Marketing in Madera, CA, said in an interview with The Produce News May 6.

“We are going to start California figs on Monday, May 9,” out of the southern desert, shipping out of Coachella, CA, he said. The variety will be Brown Turkey, and the fruit will be packed “only in half trays and full trays because the fruit is going to be too large” for clamshells or baskets.

“We are going to start the California Black Mission somewhere around the first of June, as we do historically, out of the Central Valley,” he said. That fruit will come from the Lost Hills and Kettleman City area on the west side of the valley. “There is young production of Black Missions in the Kettleman City area, so it certainly should increase our production down there,” he said.

“It looks like the Breva crop, which is the first crop” and which is produced on the prior year’s fruiting wood, “will be better than last year,” although not “the real bumper crop” that it looked like it might be a little earlier in the growing season.

The Black Mission Breva crop was expected to continue through about July 4. Then after a brief gap, “the second season of Black Missions will start right around the middle of July,” he said. In late July, “we’ll start the Calimyrnas as well.”

In the desert, the first crop of Brown Turkeys was expected to go until about mid-July, coming to an end because of the summer heat. “Then we come back in late August and go all the way into December and sometimes into January,” he said.

The growth in the company’s fig production should continue to increase over the next several years due to new plantings.

“We just planted 40 acres additional down in the desert” which will be grown organically, Mr. Kragie said.

“For the first time, we will have Black Missions, Sierras and Panache” in the desert, he said. “Historically, we have only had the Brown Turkeys. We are putting in those three additional varieties, quite frankly, due to demand. There are a lot of [customers] who want, more and more, the other varieties, particularly the Panache and Sierra, and we might as well have the Black Missions [also], to go along with our Brown Turkeys.”

He expects to see some production from the new plant-ings in about three years, with the biggest increases coming in the fourth and fifth year.

Western Fresh also imported Chilean figs earlier this year, for the first time. “We were the first people to bring fruit in from Chile,” which was just this year permitted to be imported, he said. “Some of our growers are just winding down the last shipments.”

Fresh figs have been generating a lot of excitement in the marketplace, according to Mr. Kragie. “Demand has been growing,” with some of the company’s retail chain customers increasing purchases by as much as 50-100 percent over last year. That “has reduced some of our reliance on the terminal markets,” he said, adding that increasingly, “we are going direct to chains.”

This year Western Fresh is involved in some promotional activities tying in with other products such as cheese and pork “in hopes that we can do some crossover advertising” and help retailers sell more figs, he said. Besides working with the California Fresh Fig Advisory Board, the company is producing some of its own recipe tear-offs for retailers and has produced a DVD on figs that is available for retailers to show in their produce departments. The DVD “introduces our growers, it has recipes, and it talks about what to look for in buying a fig.” It also introduces the four varieties of figs the company offers.

“We are doing all we can to give tools to the retailer so that he can push the fruit,” Mr. Kragie said.

“We are working on some new types of packaging as well. We do clams and trays and baskets. Then we have a new consumer pack that we have developed” consisting of a six-count, an eight-count and a nine-count place-pack clamshell. There has been “a lot of interest in that,” he said.