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Fresh or dried, figs can be fun

Homemakers who have been waiting anxiously for the arrival of fresh figs from the Central Valley can relax; the fruit should appear on market shelves by mid-June.

They might also be pleased to know they can find fresh figs from some California location in the market practically the year ‘round. If that isn’t comfort enough. The dried fig varieties which lie on orchard floors soaking up summer sun are available all year, once they are harvested.

The fresh fig category has been energized by some varieties not available in the past that add color, appeal and taste to the fruit itself, and most add keeping qualities that allow lingering enjoyment after purchase.

As the calendar goes, the fig story begins early each year with production in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys at the state’s warm southern extreme. Loads of the fruit enter the market as early as February each year. With careful attention supplies from these production areas can be stretched until the mid-June bonanza ripens in Central California, notably in Madera County.

Super-anxious consumers can even buy fresh figs from Mexico and other points south during the year-end holiday season, and careful shoppers help stretch the early summer fig bonanza well into fall. Dedicated fresh fig aficionados can plan to display fresh figs on their Thanksgiving Day tables in late November.

Newer varieties of the centuries-old fig, plus energetic orchard care consume the “new age” fig growers in Madera County. Their orchards are immaculate and weed free, and their trees are characterized by a neat uniformity. Grower Steve Shaefer uniformly prunes his thousands of trees to foster low growth, allowing each one to be harvested by hand by workers standing on the ground; no ladders involved.

Countering the volume-picking style employed with some fruits, the Madera contingent insists on harvesting only figs that are ready to eat – today, even though it may involve repeated trips through their orchards and an extended harvest season.

Fruit harvested from these attractive, even picturesque, orchards are rushed to nearby field packing facilities, immediately transferred to cold storage rooms and packaged for shipment to nationwide markets on demand. The process comes about as close to “field-to-table” handling as possible.

Grower commitment to the superior quality and condition of the Madera crop of fresh figs is exemplified by Shaefer’s involvement . He owns and operates the cold storage facility where figs from his orchards and those of some neighboring growers are processed. And for good measure, he owns the winery next door where his production of wine grapes and that of some neighbors is crushed and bottled for retail sales.

Not the largest grower of fresh figs by acreage, Shaefer is one of those with the widest farming background, stretching over four generations. He has produced or continues to produce almonds, has maintained orchards growing apricots and nectarines, vineyards producing table grapes, and others growing grapes for raisins and wine.

Water for irrigation is a major concern for the Madera fresh fig producers. Most of the orchards are irrigated by automatic buried sprinkler systems Access to the underground basin has been reliable, and the growers are anxious to maintain and replenish it for their own benefit and that of successive generations.

Commitment to the land and community is exemplified by Shaefer’s community involvement. He has found time to coach youngsters in their Little League baseball programs for years, and points proudly to one former player who is now the high school baseball coach and another who is part of the sales team that represents his fresh fig production.

Like a well-cared-for fig orchard, a healthy community continues to produce quality products and people.

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