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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Fresno’s Valley Fig Growers

Nov 23, 2016 11:00AM ● By Kimberly Horg

Big Valley

December 2016
By Kimberly Horg
Photos courtesy of Valley Fig Growers

In 1959, the largest handler of figs in North America opened in Fresno. Valley Fig Growers now markets its fig products not only throughout the country, but worldwide.

Back in the day, the world market was dominated by the light-colored Smyrna fig grown primarily in Turkey. A local fig lover, George C. Roeding, brought cuttings of the Smyrna fig to California and attempted to grow them in the Valley.

At first, the figs did not grow well, but he did not give up. Roeding found out that the Smyrna figs needed male trees (called Capri figs), as well as a wasp, for pollination. After 20 years of trying while working feverishly with the California Department of Agriculture, the California fig industry was born.

He created the name Calimyrna to identify the golden fig as the state’s own variety of fig. Before then, the main one was the dark purple Mission, named after the missionaries who brought it to California.

Roeding partnered with Jessie Clayton Forkner, an area farmer who helped him establish the commercial fig industry in Fresno. Both believed Fresno had the perfect climate for growing figs.

Today, all commercially sold dried figs produced in the country are grown in the fertile soils of the San Joaquin Valley.

Valley Fig Growers, an agricultural cooperative which processes, packages, markets and sells dried fig products, represents 40 percent of the California fig industry. The industry grows about 8,000 tons of the dried figs harvested each year. It has about 30 grower members, and products are sold under Valley Fig Growers’ own brand names of Blue Ribbon Orchard Choice, Sun-Maid, Orchard Choice and Blue Ribbon.

“Figs are a unique valley crop,” says Linda Cain, Valley Fig Growers’ vice president of marketing and retail sales. “California figs have a special place in the history of agriculture of the Central Valley.”  

Cain has worked there for 22 years and says it has many long-term employees in both management and staff, who contribute decades of experience and expertise to consumers.

“Valley Fig Growers has been a steady presence in the Fresno area for employment and a home for the valley’s figs. Our plant employment has ranged from the dozens to the hundreds over the years. Each of these jobs lends itself to trickledown economics for the valley as our employees spend their wages locally,” Cain says.

The company was established by a group of fig growers who were frustrated and disappointed with established industry prices. The growers purchased two packing plants, one owned by Roeding.

The success of Valley Fig Growers lies in its ability to use an old product in an entirely new way that fits today’s consumer buying habits. The cooperative’s history of meeting challenges through innovation is seen in its various product lines: soft fig paste, fig slurry, concentrate, diced and sliced figs, fig balsamic vinegar, fig nuggets, organic fig products and custom-made fig ingredients.

It has also been on the forefront of technology with the addition of state-of-the-art   equipment, including the first anaerobic digester installed in a food processing facility in California. The digester converts processed wastewater into methane gas, which is then converted into electricity and used by the facility.

Cain says figs are iconic in the Fresno area.

“While they are relatively small in size for tons harvested, they hold a special place in the heart of our growers and consumers,” Cain says.

Cain’s favorite figs are California Mission for their robust, sweet flavor and Golden figs for their nutty, mild flavor.  

“I love our California figs dipped in dark chocolate, with a California almond tucked in each fig,” she says.

Figs are now emerging in the “foodie” trend, appearing as popular ingredients in Western and European dishes. Figs are paired with wines, chocolate and gourmet cheeses. Health nuts around the country, cooks at home and culinary professionals are turning to figs as a healthy treat. Figs offer a sweet, richly flavored way to obtain dietary fiber, calcium, iron, potassium and health‐promoting antioxidants.

2028 S. 3rd Street, Fresno (559) 237-3893 • Find them on Facebook and Instagram