Fig farming can be traced back to about 5000 BC, with the fruit first arriving on South African shores in the 1800s. Since then, South Africa’s fig farming industry has grown much bigger. Keith Wilson, considered one of the country’s foremost experts on fig production, explains the ins and outs of fig farming.
Wilson, known as “the fig man ” due to his deep knowledge of fig production, says the fruit has not changed much since people first started farming with them. He adds that, while figs prefer hotter climates, it is actually a fruit that can grow nearly anywhere.
Historically, figs are thought to have originated in Turkey, which is still the world’s biggest fig producer to this day.
Wilson says that history holds many examples where figs show their resilience.
“[In history], there were several prominent people who liked figs. I think King Louis the 14th [loved them]. That’s why there are so many good varieties in France. He even insisted that they do a special garden for him near Versailles. So that’s a very well-known person that was able to grow figs in a climate that was not really perfect, but they did all sorts of things to actually get it. And that’s a long time ago.”
Wilson’s own love of figs is what guided him to start experimenting with the fruit in the late nineties. Working with the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), he tested various varieties from all over the world to see which one would be best suited for the South African climate.
Climate and soil requirements
This guide by Giving Trees, which Wilson also contributed to, highlights a Mediterranean climate as the best climate for fig growing. Figs thrive in a hot area where there isn’t too much humidity.
Wilson explains that figs flourish in a dry climate where there is well-nourished soil. “Figs are less suited to very sandy soils. But they will still grow there. A soil that’s more suitable for figs is a loamier type of soil, so if you’ve got a good soil or if you can enrich the soil with carbon – and carbon means anything like [adding] rotted manure or compost and things like that that – it tends to like those conditions.”
Like many fruits, figs have a wide range of varieties bred to adapt to different climates. Wilson says that often South African farmers look to Italy and Europe when they choose variations, but he finds that North African variations work better in our climate.
“I think that part of our problem from the beginning is that we looked more to European countries like Spain, France and Italy, and Turkey for varieties, where the North African, especially Tunisian, varieties are actually very good. Because it’s a harsher climate and is more similar to our climate in South Africa. Syria is another country that also has some decent varieties.
Market-worthy figs are produced in a dry climate where there is not too much rain, says Wilson. However, the climate should not be too dry.
”It shouldn’t be too dry because it does affect the size of figs as well, so it’s quite tricky – figs. They’ll grow anywhere, but climatically there are certain places that they prefer. [And a] cooler evening is preferable to a climate that stays continually hot, so our Mediterranean area of the Western Cape is probably suitable to grow it. Climatically, a fig you can find almost anywhere in the world, except where it goes below 10 degrees.”
In South Africa, most of the fig production in the country takes place in the Western Cape. At the moment Wilson is looking at how the fruit fairs in the North West.
“We are also looking at North West, near the border with Botswana, which is also dry, as an early area. I’m doing some trials up there with farmers to see whether we can’t extend our season.”
The South African Fig Farming Association lists the Parisian, Ronde De Bordeaux, Adam, Tangiers varieties, among others, as the most common in South Africa.
The Parisian is listed as the most widely available variety, and has many other names, including ‘Evita’. Like Champagne, the variety is grown in a specific area in France, and may only be called by its original name, “Violette de Sollies” when it grows in the Sollies Pont area in France. The variety bears abundantly, has a good shelf life, and tastes good. It is found across the Western Cape.
The Ronde de Bordeaux variety is also found in the Western Cape but is used much less than the Parisian. It is considered a niche variety and is farmed on a small scale in Egypt, Spain, France and Tunisia.
Many South Africans have fig trees in their backyards, which are very likely the Adam variety. It is described as a fairly large fruit, with an amber to red coloured pulp, yellow to brown skin, and purple flesh. It is not recommended for export and needs specific climate conditions. This variety can be found in North West.
A Tunisian variety, Tangiers, was brought into the country by the ARC in Stellenbosch in 1981. This variety produces a large fruit, with very good taste and longer shelf life. It is ideal for drying. This variety is also found in the Western Cape.
Advice for aspiring fig farmers
Wilson says the first thing farmers need to do when looking into fig farming is to look up the preferred cultivars for their area. Selecting the right cultivar is the starting point for any fig operation.
He also says that in South Africa, we often rely on fertlisers to maximise production. This does not necessarily work with figs, however. “[Farmers] still think that they can fertilise figs during the season, but the fig is quite different to other fruit types. Most things just flower at one stage and then your fruit comes perhaps a week or two later, whereas a fig tree produces fruit as it grows, so its needs are different.”
Wilson explains that, in other areas where fig production is popular, the farmers rely much less on fertiliser. “The Europeans and North Africans use very natural products [as fertiliser], and they do that in winter when they get rain and that’s it. They don’t do anything in the summer.”
Because figs produce fruit as they grow, they need to be harvested constantly. Wilson says there’s no respite during harvest time.
“It’s a daily thing and it lasts for about five weeks. And if you are dedicated enough, you’ll be successful. There are many farmers [who feel] like it’s too much trouble to work on a Saturday or Sunday, but figs don’t wait. They ripen every day. And they need [to be] quickly processed into the market, and kept cool. If you can manage all of that, you can make a good success of it.”
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