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In A Fight To Remain Relevant Fig Growers Hope Fresh Figs Revive The Industry

Sep 22, 2015

Just a few decades ago Fresno used to be the center of the American Fig Industry, with orchards stretching for thousands of acres. Now most of the trees planted by J.C. Forkner almost 100 years ago are gone and are replaced by homes and shopping centers.

Likewise California’s fig industry has undergone some big changes, but after years of struggles some growers hope that new food trends might provide a turnaround. That’s if the drought doesn’t cause them more problems. FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports on how the fig industry is working to remain relevant and to reinvent their brand.

For many Americans their only association with figs comes from the soft and chewy Fig Newton cookie. That's because most of the figs grown in California are dried and used in fig pastes and cookies. 

Figs dry on the tree, fall to the ground, are picked up by machinery, washed and then packaged.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

But as consumers’ tastes have changed, the valley’s fig industry has gone through some tough times. Lack of demand and the drought have pushed some growers to other crops, or even out of business. For others though that may be changing, as Americans discover there’s more to this fruit than those chewy square cookies.   

“So what you have are chefs on TV, chefs in restaurants using fresh and dry California figs. Well that’s translating to an awareness to consumers, which is creating that demand,” says Karla Stockli the CEO of the California Fig Advisory Board.

"The idea of people becoming more interested in fresh produce in general has created this situation that it's become more profitable." - Paul Mesple.

Stockli says almost 100 percent of figs consumed in America come from the Central Valley and are farmed by about 30 growers. In the year 2000 there were over 15,000 acres of figs in the state. Today that number’s dwindled to 8,000 acres. That’s 45 percent of the California fig crop gone.  At one time Fresno was the epicenter for fig growing, but urbanization forced farmers to move into Madera and Merced counties.

“There are more homes and business and things in Fresno and so things have moved north where it’s ideal growing conditions for figs,” says Stockli.

Drought, increased labor costs, and a decrease in popularity of dried and canned figs has forced many growers over the years to close up shop altogether.  

Tonetta Simone Gladwin is one of those farmers.  

Tonetta Simone Gladwin has let he acreage go because of a zero allocation of surface water and the lack of funds to dig a new well.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
"It's like watching your kids suffer and not being able to do anything about it." - Tonetta Simone Gladwin

“I’ve found it kind of impossible to move forward and to do business any longer,” Gladwin says.

Gladwin is a third generation Italian fig grower who lives in Merced. Farming practices were passed down generation to generation in her family. This year the lack of surface and well water, crippling her 125 acres, ends the family tradition of growing fresh figs.

Gladwin has diversified not by planting other crops, but by working as a counselor in a local school.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“This is three acres of young brown turkeys that died this summer,” Gladwin says. “So thirsty, it’s like watching your kids suffer and not being able to do anything about it.”

Before the drought hit, Gladwin shipped fresh figs across the US and Canada. But this year she says harvest was just 10 percent of an average year. The lack of water has killed her trees.

“These are dead,” says Gladwin. “But this one is probably is not. See it still bends. So there’s still something in this tree. But it’s just going to take a really long time to get it to come back.”

Gladwin doesn’t have the time to wait for rain or the money to dig a new well to water these trees. So she’s decided to downsize and sell property to pay off her debt and get out of farming.

Not all fig growers are in Gladwin’s predicament. Paul Mesple is a fig farmer in Chowchilla. He chose to diversify his acreage when demand for dry figs decreased.

Paul Mesple's family moved their fig operation from Fresno County to Madera County as urbanization forced them out.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“Prices became very depressed 10, 15 years ago,” Mesple says. “We had to either convert to other varieties so we could make more money on them, which meant we had to do more retail or we had to switch to almonds.”

He and his partner farm around 2,000 acres of figs that are sold both dry and fresh. He also has 700 acres of almonds and a few acres apricots and peaches. Today Mesple’s crew is packing fresh black mission figs. They use cloth dusters to pat the figs clean.

Black Mission Figs are by far the most popular fig eaten fresh and dry.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“Here’s the mission variety brought by the Spanish padres at the 1600’s into California,” Mesple says. “Probably become one of the predominant varieties in the California fig industry both fresh and dry.”

Fresh figs, unlike dried figs, are a delicate crop. Fresh figs can be sold in a very small window because they bruise easily. Even still demand is so high that growers have planted over 1,000 additional acres of fresh fig varieties in the last few years. A lot of this is due to marketing. The industry has fought to diversify the use of the fig while introducing it to new consumers and now is found in chocolate, liquor and even soap.

“The idea of people becoming more interested in fresh produce in general has created this situation that it’s become more profitable,” Mesple says.

Dried figs are sorted before they are packaged or turned into paste.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Even with the transition to using figs in more products and the growing popularity of fresh figs the industry is vulnerable. Gary Jue is the President of the co-op Valley Fig Growers that represents 40 percent of fig farmers in the state.  He says if one variable goes awry, say rain while the fruit is sun-dried, then the fig industry as a whole could suffer.

“Let’s just say next week it rained hard and it devastated the crop that’s out there we’d be in a fix,” says Jue. “It would be an ugly situation because we probably couldn’t raise our prices enough to offset the loss.”

And that’s why Jue says many of the growers he works with will continue to diversify crops following food trends, but at the same time continue to rely on big consumers of the dried product  - like the Fig Newton cookie – to guarantee an income.