Then And Now | This Is A Fig’s Tale

Today, the California fresh fig is enjoying a renaissance. Paradoxically, that is attributable, at least in part, to ruinously low prices for the dried ones.

Then And Now | This Is A Fig’s Tale

“What fruit has the eye of a widow and the cloak of a beggar?” asks an old Spanish riddle. Answer: a really ripe fig, revealing its honeyed lusciousness by a teardrop of syrup at the bottom and a tattered skin.

For millenniums, voluptuous figs, fresh and dried, have inspired aficionados to mania. So much of the story of figs seems mythic: the miracle of caprification, in which a tiny, frustrated wasp plays Cupid to figs; the breakthrough a century ago that harnessed this process for California farmers; the saga of the Los Angeles promoter who founded a Fresno fig empire with 660,000 blasts of dynamite.

Today, the California fresh fig is enjoying a renaissance. Paradoxically, that is attributable, at least in part, to ruinously low prices for the dried ones. Fig lovers can look forward to increasing shipments of the best fresh varieties arriving at markets and farm stands this week.

Figs were introduced to California by Franciscan missionaries, starting with the founding of Mission San Diego in 1769. The dark-skinned, pink-fleshed Mission fig was the only kind grown here until the 1850s, when settlers brought other varieties from the East Coast and Europe.

After statehood, a modest fig industry developed in the Sacramento Valley, focused on dried figs. By the 1880s, growers recognized that the Fresno area--the hottest, driest part of the Central Valley--is ideally adapted to the fig and expanded their plantings there, mostly of the green-skinned Adriatic variety.

Only one thing was lacking: the Smyrna fig, the “true fig of commerce,” which has a unique nutty flavor and brought the highest prices. In 1880, G.P. Rixford of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin imported 14,000 cuttings of this variety from Turkey, which he distributed to subscribers. The trees flourished, but, to everyone’s dismay, the figs dropped, unripe, at walnut size.

After several more fruitless importations, many Californians concluded that they’d been hoodwinked by the Turks.

The problem was that, although most figs (called common figs) bear fruit to maturity on their own, Smyrna figs must be pollinated by Blastophaga psenes, the fig wasp. This gnat-sized insect lives only in dry, inedible wild figs, called caprifigs.

Since ancient times, Mediterranean growers have assisted this pollination process, called caprification, by hanging branches of caprifigs in Smyrna fig orchards as the female wasps emerge from the caprifigs in the spring, coated with pollen. Searching for new caprifigs in which to lay their eggs, they enter Smyrnas through the eyes at the bottom, and dust the tiny flowers inside with their pollen. The wasps die without laying their eggs, since the Smyrna fig flowers are too long for their ovipositors, but the figs develop.

Although many American fruit experts considered caprification to be a peasant superstition, growers repeatedly imported caprifigs; each time, something went wrong, and the wasps didn’t take hold. Finally, George Roeding of Fresno succeeded in establishing a colony, and in August 1899 his orchard bore large, blond, plump Smyrna figs. After a contest, Roeding re-christened the variety Calimyrna, for California Smyrna.

California’s big fig boom began in 1910, when a Los Angeles real estate developer named J.C. Forkner leased a swath of hog wallow badlands northwest of Fresno. To this point, the area had served only as pasture, because an adobe-like layer of hardpan lay a few feet under the surface and the pockmarked terrain made irrigation impossible.

 J.C. Forkner, third from left, in 1917 with one of his newly planted fig trees. Photo: courtesy of the Pop Laval Foundation

But Forkner had a vision. He hired dozens of tractors, still novel in those years, to level the ground, blasted 660,000 holes through the hardpan so that trees could take root and planted figs on 12,000 acres. Next he blizzarded the nation with advertisements and brochures promising, “Own your own Fig Garden, You’ll be rich! Five acres produce $4,000 annual income.” Chasing this lure of profits in paradise, hundreds of aspiring farmers, many from the East, bought into Forkner’s Fig Gardens.

A longtime Fresno fig grower, Harry Bud Buck, 80, remembers Forkner well, for his father supervised the western half of his plantings from 1918 to 1926 and later was his partner. “Mr. Forkner was quite a flamboyant character,” he says. “He loved to regale people with stories about how good figs were, and why they should grow them. Others detested him thoroughly, but I liked him.”

Most of the growers, then as now, were of Italian origin, with the old country’s love and knowledge of figs. Although the vast majority of the harvest went to drying, in the 1920s a considerable market developed for canned Kadotas, with thick greenish-yellow skins. Shippers also started sending refrigerated carloads of fresh figs to the East.

Forkner’s battalion of tractors in 1921. Photo: courtesy of the Pop Laval Foundation

California fig cultivation peaked at 42,500 acres in 1927. Forkner lost his land in the Depression, as did most of the Fig Garden smallholders. He later recouped his holdings and died a wealthy man in 1969. After a boom during World War II the fig industry settled into a long, slow decline, squeezed by increasing labor costs and cheaper imports.

Business recovered somewhat and stabilized in the 1970s and ‘80s, but as Fresno sprawled northward, development gobbled up much of the old Fig Gardens. Most growers moved 25 miles north to cheaper land in the Madera-Chowchilla area. Today, only about 1,500 acres of figs--less than a tenth of the state’s 16,500 acres--remain in the former “Fig Capital of America.

In the Fig Gardens, many owners have turned off the water in their groves, waiting for the inevitable houses and office buildings.

Today, the J.C. Forkner Fig Gardens is nothing more but a developed landscape.

Along California Highway 99, orchards lie abandoned, strewn with discarded sofas and television sets, the weeds shoulder-high. Heedless that the flanks are turned, the venerable, gnarled trees still bear generous crops, but only squirrels and birds appreciate the soft, sugary fruit.

Aggravating problems for fig growers, Nabisco, the dominant buyer of dried figs, decided five years ago to pad out its Fig Newtons line with products made from other fruit. This cannibalized sales of the traditional cookies, and fig paste prices collapsed to $300 a ton from $1,000 a ton. Growers had to adapt or face ruin.

Some decided to emphasize sales of fresh figs, which have grown by a third to a half in the last five years. It’s a small, high-end market, less than 5% of the fig crop by weight but lucrative for those who master the tricky logistics of harvesting and shipping the delicate, perishable fruits.

The season begins in late May or June with the first harvest of Mission figs in the Central Valley. Many fig varieties bear two crops annually. The first crop, known by the Spanish term breba, is borne on the previous year’s wood, while the second, or main, harvest emerges from the new growth. Juicy breba Mission figs, twice as large as the later crop, go exclusively to the fresh market.

A month later, the harvest shifts to Mecca, in the torrid Coachella Valley. Mike and Alan Weeks fill the gap between the first and second crops of the Central Valley with their Brown Turkey figs, large and mild-flavored. A visit to the 80-acre planting is no picnic: An almost biblical plague of maddening black flies, spawned in the nearby Salton Sea, buzzes incessantly. Even at 6 p.m., a sweet, heavy odor, steaming from the large palmate leaves of the fig trees, permeates the 115-degree air.

“This is nothing,” says Alan Weeks. “A few days ago it was 123 degrees. No way do I go out in the middle of the day.”

The Central Valley’s main crop begins in late July and early August. On a sultry morning, Maury DeBenedetto Sr., whose family has farmed in Fresno since 1934, arrives at dawn to direct the harvest of Kadotas at a Fig Garden orchard.

Despite the heat, the pickers wear long sleeves to shield their arms from the short bristly hairs on the fig leaves as they reach deep into the trees for ripe fruit. They also wear surgical gloves to protect their hands from the milky sap that oozes from the stalks as they clip off the figs. It contains ficin, a protein-digesting enzyme that irritates skin.

“Years ago,” says DeBenedetto, “young Italian men in Fresno used to tattoo the names of their girlfriends on their arms with fig sap.”

He takes a golden-green Kadota from a picker’s bucket and peels off the thick skin, revealing strawberry-colored pulp. Normally Kadotas, which don’t need to be caprified, have lighter amber pulp, but this one has been pollinated by an errant wasp from a nearby Calimyrna orchard, giving it a darker hue and grainier texture.

In the middle of the orchard, shaded by the canvas roof of a field wagon, women sort and pack the figs. In hours, the cartons will be on jets to New York and Toronto, where large communities of people of Greek and Italian origin pay top dollar for the best figs.

Though the fresh fig market is growing, the vast majority of California’s fig harvest is dried. Picking of dried figs starts in August and runs through September.

For several decades, most growers have harvested dried figs mechanically, but at his vast ranch northeast of Madera, Paul Mesple still sets out fresh-picked Kadotas on trays to dry and turn white in the sun. Virtually all of these figs are exported to eastern Asia, where soups of boiled dried figs are a traditional tonic for restoring strength.

A few miles away, near Chowchilla, Kevin Herman, who farms 3,000 acres of figs, oversees the various stages of the mechanized harvest. First, men wielding hefty wooden mallets knock partly dried Missions off the trees onto the smooth orchard floor. Later, machines blow and sweep the figs into rows between the trees.

At the nearby Bump City ranch, Herman follows a tractor that sucks up the rows of fully dried Adriatic figs and deposits them in a big wooden bin, along with plenty of leaves and other debris. “It’s a dusty job, especially for the poor guy on the back of the tractor,” he says.

Fresh Calimyrnas are merely scrumptiously sweet, and drying concentrates the flavor to honeyed perfection. However, dried Calimyrnas are as difficult to farm as they’re delicious to eat. As Herman observes, “Cals will turn a young man old real quick.”

The chief problem is that the same fig wasps that pollinate the seeds, giving Calimyrnas their distinctive nutty crunch, also introduce fungi and smuts that spoil a high percentage of the crop. “Naturals,” large perfect dried figs, are rare.

A researcher at the University of California Kearney station, Jim Doyle, has spent nine years trying to breed the Holy Grail of fig growers: a new variety with the flavor of Calimyrna that doesn’t require caprification. Judging from a recent tasting of his most promising selections, he’s tantalizingly close, but complete success might be out of reach: Fertilized seeds seem essential to the Calimyrna’s flavor.

The half-dozen leading varieties of figs are well suited to commercial cultivation, but connoisseurs and collectors around the state claim that some of the more unusual kinds offer far superior flavor.

“People rarely get to taste the best varieties of figs,” claims Howard Garrison, field manager of the National Clonal Germplasm Repository collection at Winters.

Of the 140 varieties of figs under his care, his favorite is the outlandish Panachee, a green and yellow striped fig with a touch of acidity to balance its sweetness. But the Violette de Bordeaux, a dusky beauty with red pulp, astounds the palate with layer on layer of complex, interesting flavors and a subtle, lingering aftertaste.

Though the San Joaquin Valley is fig central, the Southland has seen its share of fig farms and follies. A land scheme similar to Forkner’s led to the planting of 5,680 acres of figs in the San Jacinto Basin of Riverside County in the 1920s. Because of low prices and water problems, just three acres remained by 1938.

Only vestiges survive of the fig gardens once common in the San Fernando Valley, but three commercial farmers with 10 acres or more still thrive in North San Diego County. They sell their crops, mostly Brown Turkeys and Kadotas, to Los Angeles wholesalers and prefer to keep a low profile.

“Please don’t tell anyone about me,” begs one grower in Escondido. “People call me up and talk for hours about figs or sneak into the orchard in the middle of the night to eat their fill.”

At the Fig Tree Ranch in Malibu, however, fig fanatics are welcome to visit. A quarter-mile from the ocean, the Cunningham family grows 150 trees bearing 23 varieties of figs, most of which can usually be tasted only in private collections. There’s Celeste, the classic fig of the Southeast, and the ranch’s own Coconut Chiquita, with a coconut aftertaste that’s “so good it should be illegal,” says Vikkie Vicars, the farm hostess.

“One woman who came to pick ate so much, I told her, ‘Next time, I’ll weigh you before and after,’ ” says Vicars with a smile. “People are nuts when it comes to figs.”

Here is a great old read from J.C. Forkner himself, enjoy.