Choosing the Best Figs for Hawaii

Final Report for FW07-034

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Western
State: Hawaii
Principal Investigator:
Ken Love
Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers
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Project Information

Abstract:

SUMMARY

Figs have been established in Hawaii since the mid-1800s, yet only two of the 1,000 varieties have flourished here. Through this project we tested more than 50 varieties at various elevations on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii and determined there are many other varieties, each with different growth and flavor characteristics, that offer growers, chefs and consumers a wide range of choices.

Our project collaborators and I found that the various varieties of figs planted extend the growing season when pruned low to facilitate harvesting. At some elevations with proper horticultural practices, figs will produce year round.

Chefs learned the difference between “commercial ripe” (for use in savory culinary applications) and “tree ripe” (for use in sweeter dessert applications). We were able to determine, given the range of test plot locations, which types of figs did and did not require a pollinating wasp not currently found in Hawaii.

The project will continue long after the termination of project funding because we demonstrated the profitability of fig production, the relative ease of growing and harvesting (labor reduction), and substantial demand for more fruit by consumers, chefs and developers of value-added products.

OBJECTIVES

1. Sample and rate figs at the USDA germplasm repository for horticulture and culinary value.
2. Obtain and plant suitable varieties in Hawaii at four locations: Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative, University of Hawaii Experiment Station, Love Family Farms and GS Farms.
3. Assess cultural practices, growth patterns, water requirements and pest susceptibility of the various figs under differing elevations and environments.
4. Test various non-chemical approaches to repel birds and other pests.
5. Determine which figs grow best and which are most desirable among chefs.
6. Disseminate to growers information about varieties and their cultural needs.

RESULTS

Choosing the best figs for Hawaii turned into a much more detailed and exciting project than first anticipated for two primary reasons: first, the desire on the part of other growers to participate and receive fig cuttings and, second, people from around the world read about the project on www.hawaiifruit.net and wanted to have their favorite fig grown in Hawaii. This international cadre of “fignatics” enabled us to work with some varieties that are not in the USDA clonal repository and in one case enabled us to offer an addition to the collection that was accepted.

There are three classifications of figs, two of which require a pollinating wasp not found in Hawaii. The first challenge was that there are no records for many fig varieties regarding which would produce edible figs. Fig varieties Archipel, Masui Dauphine, Farter, Osbourn Prolific, Black Mission, Conadria, Excel, Rattlesnake Island, UCR 187-25-Giant Amber, Marabout, White Genoa, Early Violet, Santa Cruz Dark, White Texas, Ischia Black, Calimyrna, Flanders, Col de Dame and LSU Gold were planted at the KPFC site. Once the figs started to produce, we were able to determine the characteristics of each variety.

We determined that Marabout and Calimyrna were Smyrna type figs and would not produce edible fruit at this location in Hawaii. These were cut back, grafted with Osbourn Prolific and Rattlesnake Island, which we found to have the highest brix, and were heavy producers.

Harvesting is required every 2-3 days. Trees were fertilized quarterly with 6-6-6 organic. Harvested figs are sent to the culinary school and sold to chefs. Some varieties are used to develop value added projects including jam, fig jerky, stewed figs and sauce.

The major challenge was bird damage. With the first production, we lost 30-50% from Mynah birds, White Eye birds and Cardinals. After stringing Mylar tape and a variety of bird deterrents from Japan, we could reduce the damage to 5-10% of the total production. We also tested bagging the fruit, using bags manufactured in Japan. These bags further helped to reduce damage from birds, the occasional fruit fly and airborne virus. The problem with the bags is that the increased heat inside can cause premature ripening of figs so the timing is critical when to use them. Another problem was that the Mynah birds decided that the bags were nice to use in their nests and they would often tear the bags off the fruit and fly off with them.

One of the most important observations from this test is that the figs grown at each location (including the figs tested at the clonal repository in Davis) vary greatly in their individual horticultural and culinary characteristics. Therefore as many fig types as possible were given to growers before we can make any definitive conclusions regarding which figs performed best at the various elevations and within Hawaiian microclimates. Consequently, it will take another 3-5 years for such conclusions due to the time it takes to grow from a cutting to production, especially at higher elevations.

Many of the figs grown at both of these sites performed better than the parent trees and had a higher sugar content than the figs produced in California. Other figs do not perform as well or grow as fast as the California parents grow.

RECOMMENDATIONS

We found that the following varieties produce well at all elevations: Black Mission, Rattlesnake Island, Brown Turkey, White Kadota, UCR 187-25, Excel, LSU gold, Osbourn Prolific, Flanders, White Texas, Early Violet and Violette de Bordeaux.

The following varieties show limited production but produce high quality figs: Ischia Black, Col de Dame, Conadria, Beall, White Genoa, Archipel, Masui Dolphin and Santa Cruz Dark.

IMPACT ON AGRICULTURE

There are a number of advantages to growing figs as part of an overall farm plan. Figs are extremely drought tolerant, have no need for large quantities of inputs, are easy to propagate and produce in a very short period compared to other tropical fruit. Figs do not require special soils and can grow at virtually any elevation and in any of Hawaii’s microclimates. Sales from our farm have been profitable and we’ve been able to assist project collaborators and other growers with their sales. Most people are familiar with figs in packaged cookies and other products, so there is little consumer education required.

PRODUCER ADOPTION AND REACTIONS

Growers also like working with fig trees as they easily espalier and can be trained to grow in virtually any space. Figs have now become a permanent part of agriculture in this part of Hawaii because of this project. Figs provide significant additional income to farmers who produce them for commercial purposes. Other growers have added this fruit to their diet, enabling them to be more self-sufficient and sustainable.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR WSARE

Projects involving fruit trees need to have the option for longer funding periods. The time to production for figs is relatively fast, usually from cutting to first fruit within one year. However, many tropical fruit trees require a much longer period before they can be tested for proper horticultural practices, production costs and marketing feasibility.

OUTREACH

At the onset of this project, Dr. Ed Stover, the former curator of the USDA fig collection in Davis, came to the island and addressed members of HTFG on growing the numerous varieties of figs. The public was also invited to his talk.

An additional three meetings of the West Hawaii chapter also addressed the fig project. The project website, www.hawaiifruit.net, was also promoted in meeting announcements. Also at the beginning of the project, I produced the poster of 123 varieties of figs, which is visible at many farmers markets and stores around the state.

Figs planted at the KPFC “12 Tree Project” site are open to the public for viewing. Member of agriculture related groups have visited the site frequently and we continue to have bi-monthly workdays where members can receive cuttings from the figs.

Cooperators

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Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.