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Stellar increases desert fig production, looks to year-round program

With fig production currently in the Central Valley and the southern desert of California, Stellar Distributing Inc. in Madera, CA, is in the business of shipping fresh figs from late April or early May through the end of the year and possibly into January.

With imports expected from Peru and Chile next winter, “we will definitely be working with fix next year, year-round,” said Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager.

This year, production in the company’s desert program is expected to be about double what it was in 2010, he said.

A wholly owned subsidiary of Toronto-based Catania Worldwide, Stellar is involved in an assortment of other products as well, most notably kiwifruit, pomegranates, persimmons and limes. However, figs are an important part of the Stellar program, according to Mr. Cappellutti, and have been a major focus since its inception in 1992.

Stellar began harvesting its desert figs on a new block in Nieland in California’s Imperial Valley in 2008, with the first full commercial crop on the young orchards coming into production in 2009. Volume increased significantly for the 2010 harvest. “We have almost 240 acres of really densely planted figs” in the desert, and last year, they produced “an amazing amount of fruit,” Mr. Cappelluti said.

Volume will be up dramatically on the Nieland ranch again for 2011. This year “we are looking at almost double the production we had last year out of the desert,” he said.

The harvest started with the Black Mission variety, Mr. Cappelluti said May 6. “Tomorrow, we are going into Sierras” as well as Brown Turkeys. He expected to start picking Tiger figs on May 9 or May 10.

Those harvest dates are earlier than last year, he said.

The fruit is shipped from a facility in Brawley, CA.

In the desert, the first crop will run about two months. “We will have figs to ship out of Brawley from now until August first,” he said. The harvest in the desert will start back up again around Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, “we will be starting in Madera” in the Central Valley “about the first to fifth of June,” Mr. Cappelluti said. “We will ship out of Madera all the way through the summer and then ship out of both coolers” after starting back up in the desert in October.

With the desert deal now added to the Central Valley deal, Stellar has figs to ship continuously throughout the season. “I will go from now to the 15th of January with absolutely no gaps,” he said. “Last year, my supplies didn’t dwindle at all, and this yer I expect my supplies to increase.” The harvest started 10 days earlier than in 2010, and “there is no way I am having a gap.”

Next winter and early spring, for the first time, Stellar will have figs to ship from January through April as well, due to export programs.

Catania, Stellar’s parent company, has extensive fig plantings in Chile which it has been exporting into Canada and other parts of the world, but until this year, late in the season, they were not allowed into the United States. “We were the first guys to plant figs down there, and we’ve done the groundwork on the Chilean fruit” but chose to pass on opportunities to bring it in this year, he said. Next year, Stellar will have figs not only out of Chile but also Peru, “which will be even earlier than Chile, so we will definitely be working with figs next year, year-round.”

With regard to packaging, Stellar has been doing a 24-count place-pack consumer pack for club stores. “Then we started a nine-count,” which has a lower price point and is “a little bit cheaper for the consumer.” The pack “really protects the fig better than the normal one-pound clamshell,” he said. The nine-count is the pack style on which the company is now placing the most emphasis.