Te Mata Figs

December 2014

Growing and processing figs and marketing fig products

After distinguished business careers, Murray Douglas and Helen Walker have founded Te Mata Figs near Havelock North. They use fruit from 23 varieties of figs for fresh fig sales to caterers, restaurants and retailers and for processing into 12 products sold at the The Figgery, Hawke’s Bay Farmers Market and high-end retailers throughout New Zealand as well as online. They are expanding the volume of figs grown with contract growers in a co-operative.

In 2007, Murray was working as chief executive of the City of Sydney and Helen was manager of the Workers Compensation Commission of New South Wales when they bought a run-down cherry and nectarine orchard near Havelock North. Both New Zealanders, they wanted lives with more open space and opportunities to grow. Taking advice from the NZ Tree Crops Association and Eric Cairns, a fig specialist, they purchased cuttings and founded Te Mata Figs, selecting varieties which gave an extended season for fresh fruit sales and processing. From 2011 they have developed a range including fig jam, relish, chutney, compote, paste, syrup and even salame de fiche.

All Te Mata’s figs have been sourced from plant material available in New Zealand, of which there are a wide variety of cultivars available. One of the challenges is that NZ figs are commonly misnamed according to the place a particular tree is found, or they are named after someone. As the same genotype will appear slightly differently under different territory or climatic conditions, it is not surprising that this has occurred, but it makes it difficult to get a uniform understanding of fig genotypes currently available in NZ. Te Mata Figs is evaluating a potential opportunity to import tissue culture from the United States.

Figs generally produce a Breba, or first crop, in late December/early January, and a main crop in autumn. But not all cultivars produce a Breba and some produce a Breba crop only. In Hawke’s Bay the quasi-Mediterranean climate suits figs well and the season is from mid-February to mid-May, weather dependent. The range of varieties provides figs across the season.

The majority of figs are grown on an espalier system, with different numbers of wires and heights of wires across different cultivars. The majority adapt to espalier but some prefer to be grown as a tree. It has been a steep learning curve as to how to maximize production and remains so. All commercial figs are grown in cages to prevent birds damaging fruit, but Murray and Helen regularly flush out the burglars who manage to get in through netting holes.

The Te Mata Figgery soil is sandy loam, probably a bit rich for figs and tends to produce over exuberant growth. No fertilizers are used.

The main pests are birds, ants and the occasional rat. No insects attack fig leaves but lemon tree borer is an issue and the only remedy is hard pruning. Seasonal pruning occurs in July and summer pruning to open up the foliage.

Figs are flowers and as such are incredibly fragile. Figs are all hand-picked into plix liners in fruit trays. They are transferred to the chiller within an hour of being picked to remove the field heat, prior to being sorted, packed for sale and returned to the chiller before being despatched. Although figs will last chilled for up to two weeks, all are either sold or processed within 24 hours of picking to ensure quality.

Figs have to be picked at the optimal point of ripeness as with the exception of a couple of cultivars, they will only soften and not ripen once picked. The best tasting figs are the ones whose skin has begun to split – a sure sign of ripeness. Growers tend to pick figs a little early in NZ before the fig is truly ripe, to enhance shelf-life. Unfortunately this leads to customers being put off figs, having tasted the lip-numbing latex in unripe figs. Te Mata processes figs fresh and freezes, as well as drying them, to support the processing operation when fresh figs aren’t available.

The Te Mata Figgery is only 2ha in size and some of the old nectarine and cherry orchard is still being converted into figs. When this is finished in the next 12 months the site will contain 1000 trees. Te Mata also works with around 14 growers, who vary in size from relatively small to substantial. These are folk with small parcels of land who are looking for an opportunity to grow a crop which doesn’t necessitate any spraying, or require horticultural machinery to manage, but which will give them a return. Te Mata undertakes all the marketing, distribution and processing, with guarantees over receipt and a rate according to grade. Fig products are available throughout NZ and Te Mata has exported some special orders, but not yet exported regularly.