Figs Help Farms Branch Out

The Recorder, October 18th, 2015, by Rachel Rapkin.

Some residents may have seen figs for sale at the local farmers’ market and wondered where they came from.

Tom Ashley of Dancing Bear Farm has been growing figs for about seven years. It all started when a longtime friend and customer introduced him to fig farming when she gave him four dead-looking sticks to plant and told him to observe the results. To his astonishment, two of those sticks, or branches cut from her fig tree, sprouted into two new trees and produced the juicy fruit.

“The only fig I knew was a Fig Newton,” he said. “I really knew nothing about figs and now a lot of people call me a fig expert, but I have a hard time with that.”

Ashley believes Companions of Health Farm in Wendell and Dancing Bear Farm in Leyden are only two fig harvesters in the Pioneer Valley. He said fig farming is rare in the region and the fruits are most commonly grown in Mediterranean and Middle East countries including Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy.

Ashley sells figs for three months out of the year — August to October. He said the trees go dormant during the winter and begin to lose their leaves, which is when the branches should be cut back and pruned. In the spring, the branches will begin to regrow and bud.
“It’s a yearlong process,” he said.

Ashley has been marketing figs for the past four years and said the fruit has added thousands of dollars to his revenue, but he can’t thrive on solely selling figs because of their short season. He also sells heirloom, cherry and sun-gold tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers, lettuce, eggplants, shallots and leeks to farm stands and various area markets.

Ashley’s customer base has grown since he added figs to the lineup. During the farm stand season, he transports numerous fig trees and tubs of the fruit to Green Fields Market and Great Falls Harvest restaurant.

Ashley said figs are also rare in that they taste better with age. He sells 1-year-old trees for $25, 2-year-old trees for $50 and 3-year-old trees for $75. If people just want to enjoy the fruit without buying an entire tree, he sells individual figs for $1.50 a piece.

Once a week for the past year, Ashley has also dropped off 10 to 15 pounds of figs to Magpie Pizza. The restaurant had purchased other produce from Dancing Bear and decided to add figs into the mix.

“He sought me out and asked if I was interested,” said Evelyn Wulfkuhle, co-owner of Magpie Pizza. “I was already buying cherry tomatoes from him. I love figs and was thrilled to know somebody else around here was growing them.”

She said they have been pretty popular in the restaurant, where they’re used as a topping for a dessert pizza and in a few appetizer dishes including a prosciutto-wrapped fig and a cheese-stuffed fig.

“We have used figs before, but we’ve brought them in from out of state and are pleased to have a local source for them,” she added. “He’s been having a consistently good supply for us, which has been great. We definitely don’t have a problem selling out the figs.”

When Ashley began harvesting figs, he didn’t expect them to be a big seller. He began to research their benefits and found them to be rich in antioxidants and fiber, which can help with weight management. He said even the leaves — if correctly cooked — are edible and have antidiabetic properties and if consumed, can reduce the amount of insulin needed in diabetic patients.

“It’s not a short-lived fad,” he said. “They’ve been around for a long time.”

To keep his operation running all year long, he grows most of his produce in a greenhouse that’s about 24 feet wide with 6-foot-tall sidewalls and stands about 12 feet tall at its peak. Inside his oasis, as he calls it, Ashley grows five varieties of fig trees: white, blond on blond, black, Turkish brown and Sicilian. He wants to build a bigger greenhouse so the trees can grow to their maximum height of about 25 feet.

“We are toying with the idea of a Kickstarter — crowdfunding on the Internet — to raise money to build a ‘fig-atorium’ to give these (trees) more space,” he said.