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Wither the Fig?

October 28, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

These are dark days for California fig farmers. There are the usual weather problems that every farmer deals with, but most of all there are fickle cookie eaters to battle.

Fresh figs may be a glamour ingredient--usually found only at expensive groceries and farmers' markets because of their fragility--but dried figs are a workhorse. Dried figs make up roughly 98% of the fig harvest; most of it winds up crushed into paste.

And a good portion of that paste winds up in cookies. After all, the Fig Newton is said to be the oldest commercial cookie in the United States, dating back more than 100 years. It comes, incidentally, from Newton, Mass., and was presumably made from imported figs originally.

One reason fig cookies have enjoyed such a long popularity is that figs are a natural humectant, meaning that they help other substances hold their moisture. In fact, a lot of fig paste winds up being used by the baking industry for that purpose.

But if you spend much time on the cookie aisle of your local supermarket, you probably noticed, starting five or so years ago, that the "Newton" family was expanding. Apple, berry and other fruit Newtons started sharing shelf space with good old fig.

To Ron Klamm, manager of the California Fig Advisory Board, a trade group of fig growers and shippers, this was nothing short of sacrilege. "It was cannibalization, is what it was," he says. "It siphoned off customers from the fig cookie and then when they found the others weren't as good, it soured them on that."

Per-capita consumption of dried figs in this country was cut almost in half in a single year, from just over a quarter of a pound in 1994 to 2 ounces in 1995. "We're trying to work out from under that right now," Klamm says. "Most of the other fruit bars have disappeared from the market. I think people found they didn't taste as good. A fig bar still basically is made from figs, whereas a berry bar was probably dried apple plus artificial flavorings."

What's worse is that fig growers have been even harder hit than most by this year's crazy weather. Most figs are still dried the same way they were 2,000 years ago. They are left on the tree until their moisture is reduced to about 30%, at which point they fall on the ground. With the same equipment used to harvest almonds, the figs are then gathered into the center of the orchard rows, where they are left to dry further.

"Our season is about one month later than normal and, with the temperatures we've been getting, instead of taking three to five days to dry, they're taking seven to 14," says Klamm. "The longer figs are out in the orchard, the more they're exposed to the elements, the more susceptible they become to splitting, infestation and various kinds of spoilage."

At this point, fig growers are projecting a final harvest that may be as much as two-thirds less than last year's.

"Traditionally, when you have a late season," Klamm says, "it leaves a lot to be desired both in terms of tonnage and quality."

Just one more burden to bear for the fig farmer.

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