Farmers say new kiwifruit varieties can expand sales

Issue Date: October 14, 2020
By Ching Lee
Doug Phillips, a grower, shipper and packer in Tulare County, cuts open a new red variety of kiwifruit characterized by its red starburst center and golden flesh. He says this variety is different from another so-called red variety grown in New Zealand, which has a more pinkish flesh and red center. Though still limited in supply, Phillips says his new kiwifruit is available in domestic markets, with some being exported to Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Photo/Christian Parley
Though marketed as Red Kiwi, Visalia grower Doug Phillips says this new variety is technically a gold-fleshed variety that happens to have a red center.
Photo/Christian Parley

Thanks to year-round visibility in many produce aisles, kiwifruit has come a long way from its beginnings as the Chinese gooseberry and its status as a rare fruit grown mostly by backyard hobbyists.

With his red- and gold-fleshed kiwifruit varieties finally coming into full production and hitting more markets, Doug Phillips, a grower, shipper and packer in Visalia, said the hope is that greater availability of new and different kiwifruit varieties would generate market buzz and boost sales.

"We think that by introducing some new red and gold (varieties) to the traditional green category, it's going to create more excitement and people may be more inclined to try kiwis," he said.

Phillips said he "can almost guarantee" California and world production of red and gold kiwifruit varieties—which he described as sweeter than the traditional green-fleshed Hayward variety—will continue to increase in coming years, pointing to a trend already taking place in New Zealand.

"That's certainly the direction I'm going," he said, noting he has added more plantings of new reds and golds this year, and plans to plant more next year.

As with other fruit crops, farmers continue to look for new and better kiwifruit selections with improved taste, appearance, storability and production, Phillips said, adding that he foresees more new varieties of red and gold kiwifruit coming down the pike, along with new green-fleshed varieties sweeter than the standard Hayward.

Farmer Jerry Kliewer of Reedley, whose family has been growing kiwifruit since 1973, currently grows a plus-sized kiwifruit variety from Greece that's 50% larger than the Hayward. Marketed as the Mega Kiwi, the variety made its market debut in 2017, is said to be higher yielding than the Hayward and to need fewer pollinators, according to the grower's website.

Phillips' own endeavors to bring new kiwifruit varieties to the market came in the late 1990s, when he heard about gold-fleshed varieties from New Zealand, which he tried to grow in 2000. But he found they weren't suitable for the state's climate, and went back to focusing on greens.

A few years later, he ventured into growing red kiwifruit from China, bringing back plant materials to begin experimental plantings. Those varieties don't like the San Joaquin Valley's heat and low humidity, he said, and it's taken him years to learn how to grow them better with different techniques, including through irrigation, erecting shade structures and using specialized equipment to help pollinate the crop. Bees, he noted, don't seem to like the shade structures, necessitating artificial means to blow adequate amounts of pollen into each flower so the plants can produce "maximum (fruit) size and yield."

After many trials, Phillips said he's finally narrowed down a handful of "really good" varieties of gold and red kiwifruit that can grow well in the state and have good taste, size and storability.

"I've been working on this deal for 15 years," he said. "This is not an easy, quick-type thing. It takes years and years, if not decades, to get to this point."

With about 4,400 acres of the vine in 2019, kiwifruit remains a relatively small crop for California growers, even though they produce nearly all the U.S.-grown kiwifruit supply. The state's first plantings date back to the 1930s, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Introduction Station in Chico grew experimental vines, according to the University of California, Davis. It was not until the late 1970s that California growers produced their first significant commercial crop, UC noted.

Native to China, kiwifruit was first commercialized by New Zealand in the 1940s, with exports of so-called "Chinese gooseberries" making their way to U.S. shores as early as the late 1950s, UC reported. California produce marketer Frieda Caplan, who died earlier this year, is credited with renaming the fruit after the fuzzy New Zealand bird when her Orange County-based company began selling it in 1962.

Phillips planted his first kiwifruit in 1973, after seeing his neighbor's successful backyard plantings. At the time, most of the plantings were concentrated in Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties. One- to 5-acre plantings were considered huge back then, Phillips recalled. By the time San Joaquin Valley growers started planting kiwifruit, they were putting in 20- and 40-acre blocks, he added.

"Initially, a combination of high yields for mature acreage and high prices encouraged plantings of the new crop," a 2004 UC Davis report said. Acreage eventually peaked at about 8,000 in 1988 before lower prices led growers to pull out vines.

"They used to make terrific money back in the late '70s," said grower David Brandt of Chico, who planted his first kiwifruit vines in 1980. "People on 5 acres could make a living, so that's why I planted it."

By the time his plantings started to produce a decent crop, he added, "the price was half of what it was" before tanking in the early 1990s. Recently, acreage has remained between 3,600 and 4,400, according to USDA, and prices have improved, Brandt said, citing increased demand.

The state's largest grower, Pasadena-based Sun Pacific, has kiwifruit production in the San Joaquin Valley and in Chile, and says on its website it plans to triple its production by 2025. Known for its Cuties mandarins, Sun Pacific markets kiwifruit under the brand name Mighties, which the company launched in 2014. The grower-shipper-packer made its first investment in kiwifruit farms in 1997 and says it now grows 50% of the North American supply.

With his crop down by 60% this year, Brandt said he won't be paying pickers to harvest it, though he'll use some of the fruit to make wine for personal use. He said he thinks spring-like weather last fall—which pushed the vines to bud—followed by freezing temperatures caused the poor crop this year. He said he expects other Northern California kiwifruit growers also will have a reduced 2020 crop.

Phillips said his yields are down by about 10% to 20%, noting lighter-than-normal blooms in the spring. Statewide, production is estimated at about 8.5 million 7-pound trays, down from more than 10 million trays last year, he said.

Most of the crop is harvested in October and early November, though red and gold varieties begin picking in mid- and late September, Phillips said. The red variety doesn't store as well as the greens, which are available as late as June or July, but he said he's learning better methods and thinks he can extend their availability into January or later.

Though the crop is picked by hand, Phillips said harvesting the fruit is actually "very easy and efficient," as it can be done in one pass and requires no ladders and clippers. The most costly and labor-intensive aspect of the crop is management, he said, including pruning and tying down canes. For this reason, he said he doesn't expect California plantings will explode anytime soon.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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