Opinion

Innovation and Modern Technology in Dried Fig Farming

Frozen Fig
Published Aug 17, 2023
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Technological advancements are part of the solution in the struggle to meet the increasing global food demand. In the case of figs, the introduction of smart farming and greenhouses has allowed for fig production to take place in regions once considered unfit to grow quality figs, and preservation methods allow for the highly perishable figs to be enjoyed globally.

In times of increasing global population, climate change, and geopolitical tensions disrupting food availability and global food security, it is important to facilitate knowledge sharing, technology developments, and innovative research. Such innovations and developments increase efficiency and precision, allowing for cost minimization, yield increase, and profit maximization.

Figs have been cultivated for centuries, with knowledge and traditional practices passed down through generations. However, due to newer farming techniques and strategies, modern fig production is very different from what it used to be. Figs were originally farmed through simple propagation methods, which involved repetitive planting of shoots, whereas now, modern fig farming consists of smart technologies based on Internet of Things (IoT), automated greenhouses, and industrial dehydrators.

Fig trees are known for their high adaptability to diverse environments and are recorded to survive drought-prone areas and even extremely high temperatures up to 45°C . However, factors such as humidity, temperature, and soil moisture must be carefully considered to produce quality figs and prevent premature dropping. Figs thrive in well-drained, non-alkaline soil with a pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.5 and in dry Mediterranean climates with constant sunlight and temperature reaching 15.5°C to 21°C.

Therefore, the top 10 leading producers of figs are from the Mediterranean, with Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco taking the top three places. Areas with mild tropical and subtropical climates, such as South America, Australia, and quite recently, Malaysia, are also ideal for fig production.

Top 10 global fig-producing countries in 2020

Source: Tridge

Fig farming in unfavorable regions through greenhouse plantations

Figs are not indigenous to Malaysia, and while the temperatures and year-long availability of ample sunlight are fit for fig production, Malaysia’s high humidity poses a challenge. Research has shown that ideal humidity and soil moisture levels should be around 50% to 60% for fig production. High humidity and temperature result in fruit splitting, fungus infections, mold, and early falling of figs. To combat these challenges, many Malaysian fig farmers grow the fruit in greenhouses to regulate temperature, moisture level, and humidity.

As seen in Malaysia, the popularity of greenhouse fig farming in regions unable to grow figs naturally in the open air is rising. Figs are relatively resilient to cold weather as many varieties can withstand below-freezing temperatures for a short period, and the newer ones, such as the turkey brown and Chicago, can endure even lower temperatures. However, for figs to ripen in time for the following year's harvest and to prevent a reduction in yield, figs need to be protected from frosts and freezing. 

Burying fig trees is still a widespread traditional practice dating back to the 18th century, introduced by Italians immigrating to America. This entails tying the fig tree after the leaves have fallen and burying them in the soil before the cold winter freezes the ground. Although this method is considered to provide the best protection over others, the long process requires hard labor and precise timing as the figs are at risk of growing mold if they are buried too early, and frozen grounds make it impossible to bury if farmers wait too long. Therefore, greenhouse plantation allows for more control, a year-round stable climate, easier plant growth monitoring, and shielding from unfavorable weather and pests.


Smart farming and technologies in improving fig yield

Aside from using greenhouse plantations to cultivate non-native plants, applying IoT-based monitoring systems and devices also increases yield and efficiency. Devices to measure and monitor fig quality and growth remotely are used for real-time data acquisition of soil moisture, pH level, carbon dioxide level, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. The data are in the form of text, audio, and images, which are then sent to the user’s computer and mobile phones with varying transmission distances. Some devices also alert users of any abnormal data that stray from the set perimeter. This allows for faster adjustments, precise data collection, and accurate plant growth and quality monitoring.

Programs and experiments are also in the works to create better automation systems in greenhouses. High humidity and overheating are common problems in greenhouse plantations, which are mitigated by opening doors and windows to cool the area down. However, this leads to energy wastage. To combat these issues, a fig farm in Canada utilized experimental heat pumps in 2022 that have been designed for more than two decades. The heat pumps can recover excess heat, ventilate, and dehumidify the greenhouse, preserving energy and reducing waste.


Different preservation methods of high-quality figs

Figs possess a short one-week shelf life, creating difficulties in distribution and storage. Thus, most figs are dried to increase shelf life, reduce microbiological activity, and minimize physical and chemical damage. While the age-old method of naturally sun-drying figs in the open air is still used today, they pose challenges in producing high-quality figs.

Sun drying is nearly impossible in humid areas since it requires a long drying period of four to ten days, and it is difficult to control variables such as humidity and solar intensity, which cause inconsistencies in fig quality. Sun drying figs also require more human labor since more care, longer check-ups, and attention are needed compared to other dried fruits. They also pose a higher risk of contaminants from contact with microorganisms, insects, and animals. Therefore other methods of removing moisture have been developed, such as commercial dehydrators, led by global companies such as Nesco, Weston, and Excalibur. In addition, smaller-scale solar drying, oven drying, and freeze drying are also used.

Commercial drying using ovens and industrial dehydrators is convenient and more efficient in drying figs, especially in areas where air drying is unachievable such as Japan and China. It allows users to apply consistent temperatures and allow full control of the environment. They also allow large batches of figs to be dried more quickly, with ovens taking an average of four to eight hours and dehydrators taking an average of six to 12 hours, depending on the fig size, thickness, and whether they were cut or whole figs. Freeze drying is another option that is enjoyed in South Korea, with several companies registering fig-freezing machine patents, including a South Korean company called Muhwadam, which registered in 2015. The figs are frozen for 10 to 20 hours at a temperature of -25°C to -40°C.

Although ovens and dehydrators produce higher-quality figs, the initial investment and electricity cost of running ovens and industrial dehydrators are too high, especially for rural fig farmers. Even drying through greenhouses is costly as the initial investment for building greenhouses is around USD 2,000 to USD 6,500 in Malaysia, and a single industrial dehydrator can range from USD 500 to USD 10,000. Therefore, solar drying systems have been proposed to replace sun drying for rural farmers unable to afford high-tech equipment.

The main difference between sun drying and using a solar dryer is that the latter requires a solar collector, and the figs do not receive direct sunlight. Studies have shown solar drying systems are an advanced version of sun drying, producing higher quality figs and are considerably cheaper than dehydrators. Solar dryers are much cheaper than industrial dehydrators, but they still require initial investment costs compared to natural sun drying. In addition, for rural farmers whose sun drying methods are ingrained in their cultural practices, it can be difficult to convince and educate them to use new methods. In an interview with a Türkiye fig supplier, insights indicate that the solar drying methods were too novel. While many were aware of its existence, they were too new to be convinced of switching their existing methods.

Cutting-edge technologies and novel farming practices may not be available to every farmer due to financial, regional, and cultural reasons. However, the continuous effort to create efficient farming methods and devices should be encouraged to meet the increasing global demand for fresh and dried figs.

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