For many Americans, their only association with figs comes in the form of a Fig Newton. And indeed, once upon a time, most of the figs grown in California ended up in fig pastes and cookies like those familiar chewy squares.
But tastes change, and the fig industry has gone through tough times. Lack of demand and the state's ongoing drought has pushed some growers to other crops. Others went out of business.
Growing consumer interest in fresh produce has provided hope that the fig might be poised for a comeback. But that hope comes too late for fig farmers like Tonetta Simone Gladwin.
"I've found it kind of impossible to move forward and to do business any longer," Gladwin says.
She's a third-generation Italian fig grower who lives on 125 acres in Merced, Calif. Farming practices were passed down generation to generation in her family. But this year, the lack of water killed her trees.
Gladwin has neither the time to wait for rain, nor the money to dig a new well. So she's decided to sell property to pay off her debt and get out of farming.
The fig trees, she says, are "so thirsty. It's like watching your kids suffer and not being able to do anything about it."
Not all fig growers are in Gladwin's predicament. Paul Mesple is a fig farmer near the Central Valley town of Chowchilla. He chose to diversify his acreage when demand for dry figs decreased about a decade or so ago. "We had to either convert to other varieties so we could make more money on them — which meant we had to do more retail — or we had to switch to almonds," Mesple recalls.
Mesple and his partner farm around 2,000 acres of figs. He also has almonds, apricots and peaches. Today his crew is packing fresh black mission figs, a variety, he tells me, that was brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1600s. It has "probably become one of the predominant varieties in the California fig industry, both fresh and dry," he says.
Fresh figs are a delicate crop. They bruise easily. But demand is so high that growers have planted over 1,000 additional acres of fresh fig varieties in the last few years. The goal is to diversify the use of the fig while introducing it to new consumers. That's why you can now find figs in chocolate, liquor — even soap.
"The idea of people becoming more interested in fresh produce in general has created this situation that [figs have] become more profitable," Mesple says.
Karla Stockli, CEO of the California Fig Advisory Board, echoes Mesple's assessment. "What you have are chefs on TV, chefs in restaurants using fresh and dry California figs. Well, that's translating to an awareness [among] consumers, which is creating that demand," she says.
Even with the transition to using figs in more products, and the growing popularity of fresh figs, the industry is vulnerable. Gary Jue is the president of the co-op Valley Fig Growers, which represents 40 percent of fig farmers in the state. He says if one variable goes awry – say, it rains while the fruit is being sun-dried — then the fig industry as a whole could suffer.
"Let's just say next week it rained hard and it devastated the crop that's out there — we'd be in a fix. It would be an ugly situation, because we probably couldn't raise our prices enough to offset the loss," Mesple says.
And that's why Jue says many of the growers he works with will continue to diversify crops following food trends, and why consumers will see even more products in the supermarket with figs as the main ingredient.