Labor crunch stunts growth of California's fig industry
By TIM HEARDEN
CORNING, Calif. -- Arbelardo and Jose Arcos moved quickly among rows of fig trees one recent morning, slipping under branches to examine pieces of fruit before putting them in their buckets.
"We pick our trees every two or three days," said their employer, grower Bob Steinacher. "It takes a lot of hand labor because each piece of fruit has to be touched. It's all hand packed as well."
The Arcos brothers are among hundreds of laborers at work now in fig orchards throughout California, as the main fig harvest season is under way. The laborers' speed doesn't detract from the meticulous nature of their work, as they must find fruit that's just ripe enough and suitable for the fresh market while other fruit is culled for drying.
The industry employs as many as 700 laborers during peak harvest, and at Steinacher's farm, about 70 percent return each year, he said. What's keeping Steinacher from expanding his operation is the tight supply of labor, he said.
"I think the demand for fresh figs is going to continue to grow," he said. "I don't think it's going to slow down anytime soon. Our problem in the United States continues to be labor, until there's a good immigration policy that works for farmers."
California produces all of the nation's dry figs and 98 percent of domestic fresh figs, said Karla Stockli, CEO of the Fresno-based California Fig Advisory Board. The state's more than 100 growers have produced an average of 28 million pounds annually over the past five years, according to the fig board.
"Our production for fresh and dried are in balance at the moment, and we're in the nice position of selling everything we can possibly produce," Stockli said. "It's a good time to be a grower farming figs."
Steinacher's Maywood Farms has about 172 1/2 acres of organically grown fig trees, producing nearly 100,000 boxes of fresh figs each year for worldwide customers including Whole Foods Market, he said. In addition, about a quarter of the crop is culled for drying, he said. His farm is the farthest north of California's major fig farms, which are mostly in the San Joaquin Valley.
When Steinacher's family moved to this area in 1981, there was nothing around. The ground is too rough for most nuts, although Steinacher does grow some walnuts. But it's suitable for fig trees, which Steinacher planted himself using cuttings. A drip irrigation system waters the trees with precision.
"They may struggle, but ... the fact that they struggle a bit produces higher sugars and solids than some of the folks with better soils," he said.
California's roughly 9,000 acres of figs are about half the acreage the industry had at its peak, Steinacher said. When prices lagged a few years ago, many trees were pulled and replaced with more lucrative pistachios and almonds, he said. But the popularity of figs has never been higher, he said.
"They went from about a three-week season and a short window of opportunity to where they're now available from early May until after Christmas because of plantings in the desert and cultural practices," Steinacher said.
Figs are known among chefs for versatility. They're featured as ingredients in many high-end restaurants, as their sweetness pairs well with salty products such as goat cheese, Steinacher said.
Dried figs are showing up as ingredients in lots of niche products such as specialty sauces, Stockli said. Both the value and demand for figs continue to increase, she said.
"If I had one wish ... it's to plant more figs," she said. "We've got third- and fourth-generation families that have weathered years of no returns and long inventories. It's their passion. It's in their genetics."
California Fig Advisory Board: http://www.californiafigs.com/index.php
Maywood Farms: http://www.maywoodfarms.com