Valley Fig Growers Successfully Launch California Fig Spread Products, Aided by USDA Grant
Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG) can help enable companies to introduce new products, at the same time helping them to better control their markets and sales.
Such was the outcome for the Valley Fig Growers, a California grower-owned cooperative headquartered in Fresno. The cooperative, which is more than 50 years old with nearly 30 grower members, received a $150,000 VAPG in 2013 to assist with launching an entirely new line of products – California Fig Spreads. The new products were introduced in July 2014 and are meeting the sales goals established in the VAPG application, according to Linda Cain, vice president of marketing and retail sales for Valley Fig Growers.
Four varieties of the fig spreads are on the market now: Orange, Organic Mission, Balsamic Pepper and Port Wine.
Like many produce items, figs, she noted, are preferred by customers when they in their most visually appealing condition. That means that in any harvest year, there are many totally nutritious and tasty figs that are “cosmetically imperfect.” Those figs won’t be sold as whole figs.
Until now, figs not be sold as whole figs were made into a concentrate or ground into a fig paste, Cain said. These products have been sold to food industry customers to make cookies, fillings and the like.
Even though they represented a large portion of the annual tonnage of figs harvested (averaging 8,000-9,000 tons), such processed products were not highly profitable because often the customers set prices.
“Our goal was to make ourselves be less dependent on the food industry buyers and more in control of the fig products that couldn’t be sold whole,” Cain said. The spreads, she noted, had done well in testing and during demonstration activities.
It was time for the cooperative’s first foray into a non-whole fig consumer product.
The California Fig Spreads have been advertised as pairing well with specialty, high-end cheeses and with crackers – for entertaining and for snacking. Marketing has touted the tasty combination with cheeses and as appetizers, the product quality and its high nutritional value. Early markets for the “successful” product introduction have been selected specialty grocer outlets in northern California. Next steps are to introduce the products in additional geographic areas, with the “litmus test” being to get product into new retail markets.
“For appetizers, it is really elegant. It’s delicious,” she said. As far as nutrition, Cain described figs as “loaded.” They have more fiber and more potassium than other foods, more calcium than milk, and the list continues.
“It’s new and it’s a small part of what we produce, but the goal is to get away from the fig paste jungle,” Cain explained.
All commercially sold dried figs in the United States are produced in the San Joaquin Valley of California from Fresno northward. Valley Fig Growers is the largest handler of dried figs in the country and represents about 40 percent of the fig industry. Nearly 10 percent of the world production of dried figs is in California. The cooperative markets its products under high quality brand names of Blue Ribbon Orchard Choice and Sun-Maid. Fig products are sold worldwide with key markets for the newer spreads still in the United States.
“We market products with our California connection every chance we get,” Cain said.
The grant funding has run its course. It helped with 50 percent of the project’s initial costs, with the company match of 50 percent of costs – and more. But expectations for the continued success from the fig spread products are extending far beyond the launch of a value added product.
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/)