(July 21) FRESNO, Calif. — Despite production drops that varied from 20% to 60% on individual grower’s land during California’s first-season fig harvest, heavy demand continuing into the current second season could raise the state’s fresh-market volumes above last year’s numbers.

Some growers started the second-season crop in early July, almost three weeks ahead of schedule, and the predominant first-season black mission variety has been joined by kadotas, brown turkeys and calimyrnas.

Prices started strong with the lowered first-season availability in mid-May, and although shippers reported the start of the second harvest in Merced, Fresno and Madera counties has lowered f.o.b.s, they are still above average.

PRICES

The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t report fig prices, but George Kragie, president of Western Fresh Marketing, Madera, said on July 21 that half-trays (about 2 pounds) were $5.50-6 and full trays were $10-12 for kadotas, brown turkeys and calimyrnas. Black missions were higher, at $7 for half-trays and $12-13 for full trays.

The first shipments in May brought $15 for half-trays and $33 for full trays, compared to last year’s first prices of $18-20 for full trays and $12, dropping as low as $4-4.50, for half trays and $8 for full trays during the season.

Fig trees have two seasons. The first-season fig crop comes from growth on last year’s fruiting wood on the tree and continues through the first week of July, and it generally represents 10% to 15% of the overall production, said Richard Matoian, manager of the California Fig Advisory Board.

Last year, 2.5 million to 3 million full trays, which weigh 4-5 pounds each, were sold fresh. This year’s production, even with the heat-retarded first-season crop, could eclipse last year’s production, Matoian said.

“Much of the fresh figs that are being harvested have been grown for dried purposes, but as long as the fresh demand is there, the growers will harvest for the fresh market,” Matoian said. “Based on demand from the first crop, I anticipate the demand will remain heavy for the second crop.”

Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager of Stellar Distributing Inc., Fresno, said the overall first-crop was down about 40% in volume, but chain stores didn’t temper their demand for organic and conventional figs, and fewer shipments went to wholesalers.

NO GAP

Even with decreased shipments before July, there wasn’t a supply gap because of the early start on the second season, Cappelluti said. The fruit also is larger than those harvested in the first season.

“I’ve never had such retailer interest, and now we’ve got the supply,” he said. “We started shipping May 17 and haven’t stopped shipping. It will be steady until November.”

Kragie said the trees are showing renewed vigor, a good sign for the extended second season.

“We have good size and we’re expecting a really good second season, because we started off so early,” he said. “In some cases, our calimyrna fig growers were 20 days ahead of schedule.”

FRESH ASSESSMENTS

The California Fig Advisory Board, which oversees a marketing order for processed figs and voluntary grower assessments for fresh fig promotions, continues to seek a mandatory grower-funded promotion program, Matoian said.

Last season, growers donated less than $50,000 for promotions. Matoian said a possible assessment rate hasn’t been discussed, but a mandatory system would probably triple the promotion money.

A proposal to amend the state marketing order for dried figs will likely reach the California Department of Food and Agriculture this year, with a grower referendum this winter, Matoian said. If the measure passes, the fresh fig assessment could be in place before the start of the 2005 season in May.

“There’s lots of enthusiasm and incredible support for the idea,” Matoian said. “Fresh figs are doing so well, and we can only maintain that momentum for fresh figs through promotion efforts.”