Valley Fig Growers
The Valley Fig Growers cooperative began in 1959 and is now the largest fig handler in the United States. With 20 grower members, approximately half of the dried figs harvested in California go to market through Valley Fig Growers. In an industry that has seen both expansion and contraction, the co-op has weathered the challenges and now sees growth through product innovation.
Figs are one of the oldest cultivated crops, documented over 11,400 years ago in the current West Bank area of Israel and noted often in the Bible and in medieval artwork. Today, figs are emerging stars in the “foodie” trend appearing as popular ingredients in Western and European dishes as well as paired with wines, chocolate and gourmet cheeses. Also prized for their nutritive value, figs provide high levels of calcium, iron, potassium and fiber.
The cultivation of figs depends on hot, dry summers, characteristic of the San Joaquin Valley in California. One hundred percent of the U.S. commercially grown figs come from this area. Internationally, figs are also grown commercially in Greece, Turkey, Iran, Spain and Mexico.
Valley Fig Growers is an agricultural cooperative responsible for processing, packaging, marketing and selling their members dried fig products. Upon delivery to Valley Fig Growers, all fruit must meet the quality standards of the State of California Marketing Order for Dried Figs. Once segregated and size-graded, the dried figs are washed and processed, bringing their moisture content from 12-20 percent as delivered, up to a moisture content that ranges from 21-30 percent. The fruit is then subjected to the outgoing standards of the State of California Marketing Order for Dried Figs and USDA Grades and Standards.
Whenever deemed necessary, whole dried figs are sorted to remove cosmetically blemished fruit. Dried figs destined for the domestic consumer market and most bulk figs are treated with potassium sorbate to inhibit yeast (fermentation) and mold growth. In order to preserve the beautiful golden, amber color of the Calimyrna and other white variety figs, sulfur dioxide is added. Valley Fig Growers also offers natural (without preservatives) and certified organic figs.
Valley Fig Growers markets figs under the Blue Ribbon Orchard Choice, Old Orchard and Sun-Maid brand names. Figs are either shipped directly from Valley Fig Growers or transported to Sun-Maid Growers of California (see also the Sun-Maid profile) for consolidation with other Sun-Maid products. To enhance customer service, packaged figs are also stored at remote warehouses.
Valley Fig Growers’ members have an obligation to deliver figs to the cooperative. One of the biggest challenges in the last few years has been obtaining enough product to fill customer orders. The cooperative retains the right to purchase figs from other sources which allows them the flexibility needed to maintain a steady supply for their customers. Valley Fig imports figs from competing countries when necessary; however, they use this source as a last resort which has not been used in recent times.
The supply of figs in California has been decreasing while demand has been increasing. Over the past ten years, when fig prices were low, many producers pulled out trees and replanted with more profitable crops such as almonds, pistachios or pomegranates. Most of the grower-members also grow nut crops, which can provide twice the return as figs. There remains a loyal following of growers that choose to continue to produce figs. With increasing popularity and value, some fig orchards are being re-planted.
Fig trees start producing around the fifth year and many will continue producing well beyond 100 years. The golden Calimyrna fig requires Capri (male) trees (pollinators) and Calimyrna (female) trees. The hard working blastaphaga wasp, indigenous to the male Capri tree, is responsible for caprifying (pollinating) the female Calimyrna fruit. This is very tedious and labor intensive work because just the right amount of fruit has to be pollinated. Too little will negatively affect production yield and too much will negatively affect the quality of the fruit. Only select Capri figs are harvested by hand to introduce into the Calimyrna tree. Relatively few producers are willing to continue this practice. Botanists have developed another variety that is similar to the Calimyrna, called Sierra, which does not require caprification (pollination). The other varieties, such as Mission figs, are self-pollinating. A few advantages that fig trees have over other crops are that they don’t require as much water and use little to no agricultural fertilizers and pesticides.
With prices up and the market growing, new growers are applying for membership. The five person Valley Fig Growers Board of Directors approves new membership. Board members serve two-year terms and are voted into position by the membership, there are no term limits.
The goal of the cooperative is to exceed field price for their membership. Valley Fig Growers has been able to sell in both retail and industrial markets, giving the cooperative an advantage. They have developed a steady export market in the Pacific Rim.
The retail market is picking up, in part, because of the “foodie” trends. Retail distribution is focused in large metropolitan areas such as Miami, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. A big retail market is San Francisco because of the upscale restaurants and food lovers’ markets. The increased prices for retail products results in profits that are paid directly to the growers making the cooperative a non-profit organization.
The processing plant, located in Fresno, California, is a union facility, the only one in the world, which results in significantly higher labor costs. Controlling labor costs is an on-going challenge in an increasingly global marketplace. The plant was built in 1904, so it has its own challenges in maintenance and modernization. Automated sorters that were first used in the apple industry were installed a few years ago and have already paid for themselves. As good environmental stewards, Valley Fig Growers has also upgraded their waste water system with the installation of an anaerobic digester. The digester turns process wastewater into methane gas that is converted into electricity and utilized by the facility. The cleaned waste stream is essentially pre-treated before being sent to the sanitation district. The new system reduces effluent costs by more than 80 percent.
The company’s value-added fig pastes sales are also increasing. Food shows provide an effective and important venue to introduce and sell ingredients to prepared food manufacturers. Valley Fig Growers sees a spike in the products that are showcased at food shows. The cooperative is actively trying to diversify its products away from fig bar type cookies, since historically, 90 percent of fig paste sales went into making this category of product. Selling fig paste to only fig bar manufacturers is akin to having all of your eggs in one basket. Diversification has taken form in products such as fig concentrate, fig vinegars, value-added fig pastes, and extruded fig-based products. Now, fig bar type cookies are about 75 percent of the fig paste sales segment.
A Value Added Ag grant allowed innovation in marketing, as well. Figs compete in the marketplace with raisins, prunes and snack foods like potato chips. The cooperative participates in chef and recipe related marketing activities to encourage consumers to use figs in a wide variety of ways beyond snacking. The co-op actively participates with organizations such as the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and RCA (Retail Chefs Association). Recipes are placed in many local newspapers and periodicals. Valley Fig Growers advertises on PBS and Food Network cooking shows. Valley Fig Growers work with the slow foods movement and high-end chocolate companies which place value on a commodity. In these markets, figs are a high-end retail food and not a commodity.
The success of Valley Fig Growers lies in being able to utilize a centuries old product in an entirely new way that fits today’s consumer buying habits. The cooperative’s history of meeting challenges through innovation will successfully take it into the future.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)