Growing an appreciation for figs
July/August 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Charlotte Fadipe and Barbara Arciero
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Enthusiastic farmers are getting the word out about figs.
Figs are enjoying a resurgence of popularity, thanks in part to the enthusiastic outreach efforts of farmers like Paul Mesple. The third-generation farmer says that “once people are introduced to figs, they have a real appreciation for them.”
The year was 1912—just before World War I—when Paul Mesple's grandparents emigrated to California from the Southern Alps of France. The couple's main concern was to provide a living for their family, and they decided to try growing figs and grapes on a Central Valley farm. Almost 100 years later, their gamble continues to pay off with a thriving family legacy and multi-generational business. "As my grandfather and his children—my dad and uncles—saw how well figs were doing, they planted more and more figs," Mesple explained.
A University of California, Berkeley, graduate, Mesple admits that he didn't always want to be a farmer. He studied political science and briefly considered a career in politics, but returned after his father fell ill and was unable to continue to run the family farm. "I got hooked," Mesple said with a sheepish grin. "I've been farming ever since and loving it."
Family ties remain strong at the farm, where two-thirds of its picturesque 550 acres in Madera are dedicated to figs and the remainder to almonds and heirloom stone fruit. Mesple's wife Kathy and his sister Denise work in the farm's marketing department and sell their fig fare at local farmers markets. Along with mom Madeleine, the team runs a small fruit stand, focused on offering a variety of dried figs year-round and fresh figs from about mid-June through September. These activities, in conjunction with events like the annual Fig Fest in Fresno, encourage and tempt Californians and visitors alike with a locally grown fruit and its perhaps not-so-familiar flavor.
Interestingly, figs are not technically a fruit, although growers and consumers refer to them as such. The fig is actually a flower that is inverted into itself, and the real fruit is the seeds inside, called drupes. These crunchy little seeds are what give figs their unique texture.
The Mesple family has grown figs in California for nearly a century. Today it’s a team effort that includes Paul Mesple and, from left, wife Kathy, mother Madeleine and sister Denise, shown at their farm stand.
No matter what the name, "once people are introduced to figs, they have a real appreciation for them," said Mesple, whose outreach has also included involvement in the California Department of Public Health Harvest of the Month school program, where he took buckets of fresh figs to local third-graders.
"They all loved the figs," he said. "It's a matter of just getting the word out."
That mantra has helped the cause, as there's been a noticeable change in demographics and attitude when it comes to fig consumption. Fresh figs are driving the trend.
"There's been a 35- to 40-percent increase in demand over the past five years from consumers. Fresh figs are positioning the entire category—fresh and dried—for increased consumption," said Karla Stockli, chief executive officer of the Fresno-based California Fig Advisory Board. She adds that figs are rich in dietary fiber and provide sustainable energy in the form of a tasty, easy-to-munch snack. "They are a great source of antioxidants—actually higher than tea and coffee—and they are fat free, cholesterol free and sodium free."
Although people still largely associate the fruit with cookies and bars such as Fig Newtons, more chefs are cooking with both fresh and dried figs in upscale restaurants including Fresno-area favorites Trelio, Cracked Pepper Bistro, Chef's Table and Max's Bistro & Bar. In addition, fresh California figs can be found in high-quality markets nationwide during the peak of harvest—late summer into early fall—most notably in New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and other East Coast cities where there's a diverse ethnic population. Dried figs are available year-round.
Olga Guillen displays some of the farm’s bounty. The light-colored figs are fresh and dried Calimyrnas and the dark-colored figs are Missions.
"You can't help but fall in love with figs. They're a sweet, succulent fruit that is so easy to digest," Mesple enthused.
While this may be news to some, the fruit itself goes way back. Figs are one of the oldest cultivated crops, documented more than 11,000 years ago and mentioned in the Bible. They were introduced to California in the 1700s by Franciscan missionaries—hence the name Mission figs. The Golden State now produces about 20 percent of the world's dried figs, while 98 percent of the nation's fresh figs are grown in Fresno, Madera and Merced counties.
Although California boasts several types of figs, four varieties comprise the majority grown here. The varieties Mesple grows are the state's most common: the dark-purple Mission and the amber-colored Calimyrna. The Adriatic and Kadota varieties are used mainly in producing fig paste or are canned or dried for export.
In the last decade, many farmers in California pulled out fig trees in favor of replanting other, more profitable crops such as pistachios, almonds or pomegranates, Mesple said.
A fig tree often does not start producing until its fifth or sixth year. It requires full sun, all day, to ripen palatable fruit. And it can grow to 90 feet tall. In addition, figs need careful handling as the delicate skin bruises easily. More specifically, growing Calimyrna figs is a complicated process that requires pollination by a tiny wasp.
Clearly, growing figs is not an instant path to success.
"It's a labor of love," Mesple said. "You don't do this just for the money, but because it's such a wonderful way to live." He adds that a fig tree is long-lasting and prolific, and that it is not unusual for trees to continue producing well beyond 100 years.
"Look at the color. See how rich it is," he raved, walking through his orchard and stopping to chat with his employees. At this time of year, Mesple's family farm is a hub of activity as workers fill bucket after bucket with dark, sweet Mission figs. An onlooker can see that Mesple extends the feeling of family to his employees, many of whom have worked at the farm for a number of years. "Without the tireless work of our employees, we would be unable to bring this bountiful harvest of figs to our consumers," Mesple said.
Paul Mesple inspects figs that have been carefully handpicked by Dogberto Cortez, left, and Maria Andrade, center.
Workers pick the fruit destined for the fresh market by hand, making sure to get the entire fig as well as the stem. Mesple said this practice helps extend the shelf life by one to two weeks. Immediately after picking, the figs are rushed to cold storage facilities. Then—usually within less than 24 hours—they're loaded into refrigerated trucks for shipment to retailers and wholesalers in the United States and Canada.
With few exceptions, the same varieties of figs picked for the fresh market are also sold dried. This fruit is left to ripen and partially dry right on the tree before falling to the ground to continue drying, Mesple said. Mechanical harvesters sweep and vacuum up the dried figs. From there the figs go to a sorting area, where workers place them in bins for delivery to a packing facility. In Mesple's case, the facility is Valley Fig Growers Association, a grower-owned cooperative in Fresno.
With about 20 grower members, Valley Fig Growers is the largest fig handler in the United States and represents nearly half of the California fig sector. "Belonging to a grower-owned cooperative provides us the knowledge that our figs will always be sold," explained Mesple, who is chairman of the 51-year-old association.
At the packing facility, the figs undergo inspection by government agencies and Valley Fig Growers' own rigorous in-house testing, according to Mike Emigh, president of Valley Fig Growers. Figs meeting the standards are sorted and graded for size and appearance. Then they are washed, packed and held in cold storage for year-round sales in North America and worldwide.
Some of Paul Mesple’s figs are sold fresh and some are sold dried. Here, dried figs are sorted before being delivered to Valley Fig Growers for processing.
Whole figs from Valley Fig Growers are available in U.S. and Canadian supermarkets under the Sun-Maid and Blue Ribbon Orchard Choice labels. The majority of the dried figs, however, are sold to the food-processing market for use as an ingredient item. These items range from fig pieces—for fruit bars and cereals—to the fig paste that is the star ingredient of Fig Newtons.
Japan is Valley Fig Growers' top export market, and Emigh said he's working on wooing customers in additional Asian countries. "Not a lot of people there know what a fig is, so we have to educate them," he said. "It's difficult, but we're bringing them around."
Like Mesple, Emigh enjoys helping people discover the unique taste, texture and nutritional benefits of California figs.
"I carry around a knapsack and I hand out figs wherever I go," Emigh said, laughing. "I enjoy being associated with the fig business for the same reason that our growers do. Figs have a certain cachet, so to speak. There seems to be a group of fig lovers that are very passionate about figs"—including Mesple, who said, "Knowing that I'm providing consumers a healthy, tasty product is the rewarding result of being a fig grower. What a great life!"
It's time to think fig!
Margarita Amaya packs dried figs for retail customers of Valley Fig Growers, a grower-owned cooperative in Fresno.
The 7th annual Fig Fest in Fresno promises to be an exciting showcase of just how diverse this Central Valley fruit is. Farmers, artisan food companies and renowned local chefs will be at California State University, Fresno, on Aug. 7 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to provide samples and inspiration for eating figs throughout the year. For more information, visit www.californiafigs.com.
For more information about Valley Fig Growers, visit www.valleyfig.com.
Charlotte Fadipe is a Sacramento-based reporter. Barbara Arciero is the managing editor for California Country. Joyce Mansfield also contributed to this story. They can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.