The Steinachers Rise to the Top with Maywood Farms Figs
By Melissa Mendonca
Figs, Farms and FamilyMay 2016
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Deepi Ahluwalia
If you one day find yourself perusing the produce department at Whole Foods Markets while on vacation, you may be surprised to find a familiar image on the box of figs that will be available over the summer months and into the fall. That will be Mt. Shasta on the logo of Maywood Farms figs. Shown from the vantage point of Bob and Karen Steinacher’s home in Corning, the logo represents a cherished view from the orchards of the nation’s largest grower of organic figs.
“We don’t have enough supply anymore,” says Bob Steinacher, who markets his fruit without the use of a broker. Adding to the DIY endeavor, he also grows his own trees. “We’re probably one of the bigger self-contained growers,” he adds. Fifty percent of his annual crop is sold to Whole Foods Markets.
The farm started with a small area dedicated to organic growth in 1990 and has increased its production as demand has risen. While production has been organic since the early 2000s, in the last five years, the farm has sold entirely to the certified organic market.
Edible figs, with their fat, teardrop shapes and creamy yet textured flavor, are a delicacy that fans look forward to each year. With a widening and more curious fan base, Steinacher has added varieties such as Brown Turkey, Kadota and Adriatic to his offerings, complementing his popular Black Missions. Of the Adriatics, a green fig with brilliant red interior, he says, “They taste like raspberry jam.”
Maywood Farms is the only commercial grower of Adriatics, likely because they are an even more delicate variety than the others. In fact, figs are highly delicate, requiring expert hand cutting and immediate refrigeration upon harvest and for shipping. But he says, “My customers that know them go crazy for them.”
Steinacher himself was a Bay Area boy who grew up in Los Altos on one acre of apricots, dreaming of escaping to the country to live the life of a farmer. It wasn’t quite the future his family expected of him, but they agreed to support his dream if he got a college education and spent some time gaining experience on the farms of others before starting his own venture. He dutifully went off to the University of California at Davis to earn an entomology degree and then began a series of foreman jobs in the Great Valley.
“When I first moved here, I wanted to do something different,” he says of the land he and his wife settled on as their own in 1981. “A friend of a friend suggested figs.” The Tehama County farm adviser also extolled the virtues of the fruit, so the duo began planting Mission variety cuttings. “We’ve grown all of our own trees ourselves,” he says.
If your image of a fig tree is something almost larger than life with a swooping canopy and massive leaves, you might be surprised to see the orchards at Maywood Farms. Since the fruit must be hand picked, the trees are vigorously pruned to a height of about 5 feet. There isn’t time to harvest with ladders, so all picking must be done from the ground, making the rows of trees shockingly short.
Like all farmers, Steinacher has been impacted by the drought, but he says his biggest issue is labor at harvest. Last year, 20 percent of his crop remained on the trees without enough humans to help pick. While he plans to pay an even higher wage this year to help attract more help, he is concerned about having a strong enough workforce for the long hours and precise skill needed to hand cut perishable fruit.
Thankfully, he has more than enough power from the sun in his energy program. “We have enough solar power to offset all our irrigation needs and our packing sheds,” he says.
Known as a leader in his field, and in the Tehama County Farm Bureau – he was named Farmer of the Year in January – Steinacher has been sought as a consultant to farmers in India as they expand acreage of figs there. He took his first trip to Hyderabad and Bangalore in 2014 with his daughter, Deena, a Chico State University agriculture student who one day hopes to take over management of the farm. (Son Erik works the packing sheds and fields in this family-run business.)
“I feel like I have family in India now,” says Steinacher. “India is such an interesting country and the people are so nice and so welcoming. It’s just really nice to be recognized that I’m a pretty accomplished fig grower, which I learned by the seat of my pants.”
If you can’t make it to a Whole Foods market but still want a taste of Maywood Farms figs, pick up a box of Newman’s Own organic fig cookies at a local grocery store. The culls from the fresh fig market are sent there for the iconic cookies. They may not be as delicious as a fresh fig, but they’re still a treat. And somewhat local, to boot.