Record-breaking temperatures in March throughout California will cut early fig shipments by up to 60%, shippers said, but the overall production this season shouldn’t see a significant drop.

Fig trees have two seasons. The first, with fruit from 1-year-old wood on the trees, begins in mid- to late May and continues through the first week of July. The second, which produces up to 90% of the overall fruit, begins in mid-July and lasts into December.

Shipments start with black missions and brown turkeys, followed by light-skinned calimyrnas, which taper off in September, and kadotas, which are done in the northern-producing regions in November. The latest shipments of black missions will come in December.

“An awful lot of the fruit has aborted, and that has surprised us,” said George Kragie, president of Western Fresh Marketing, Madera, Calif. “The warmer temperatures, followed by a cooling off, just really threw it into a tailspin, and we lost a lot of fruit.”

The earliest fruit will be from Maricopa County, Ariz., and Coachella, Calif., shifting north to the San Joaquin Valley and Chico. Some growers have acreage in Northern California.

LOWER THAN NORMAL

The early season, characterized by lower supplies and a demand caused by a five-month dearth of fresh figs on the market, usually starts with strong prices, but that could be even more of a factor this year with curtailed first-season volumes.

“It’ll make a better market, but there will be a lot less available,” said Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager of Stellar Distributing Inc., Fresno, Calif. “Usually, in the last week of June, the pricing on the (12 one-pint) baskets could be $12-14, but I think this year it will be $14-16.”

“The first season should see some awfully high prices, but because it will be in the first deal, hopefully that will carry over into the second deal,” said Maury DeBenedetto, a partner in DeBenedetto Farms, Fresno. “The first season will keep people hungry for the second season, which ships longer.”

Of the 46,500 tons produced on 13,000 acres in California last year, only 3,000 tons were sold on the fresh market. Fresh market shipments, however, continue to grow in proportion to the overall crop. Last year’s overall production was 6,700 tons less than in 2002, but fresh fruit shipments jumped 20%.

None of the first-season fruit is sold as dried fruit. Mike Emigh, president of the dried fruit cooperative Valley Fig Growers, Fresno, said dried fruit shipments aren’t expected to see a significant drop because of the heat that led to fruit dropping off the trees.

FRESH PROMOTION

By the start of the 2005 season, California fresh figs might have a grower-funded marketing order to promote sales, said Richard Matoian, manager of the California Fig Advisory Board, Fresno.

The board has approached the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Sacramento, about establishing the marketing order, Matoian said, and the department has asked him to explore support before a pursuing a formal vote.

“The genesis for this has come from a decision by the industry that we’re getting to the level of production that we need to promote the product to help continue the growth,” Matoian said. “If proper promotion takes place, we’ll win over even more consumers.”

The advisory board oversees a grade, standards and promotion marketing order for dried figs, but Matoian said any proposal for the fresh industry wouldn’t address grades or standards, only assessments for promotions. The advisory board currently does low-level promotions, Matoian said, contacting newspaper food editors and magazines.

“We’d like to get more promotions at the store level, directly at the consumer level, to get more retailers to handle fresh figs,” he said. “By and large, you can go into a retailer and they may have them for only a couple of weeks.”