For the Love of Kiwi

January 9, 2009

kiwiPlain and brown on the outside, emerald green on the inside, kiwis are the geodes of the fruit world. The sweet gems make their appearance at California farmers’ markets just in the nick of time –- right when the pomegranate and persimmon seasons have faded and committed locavores have prepared themselves for several puckered months of citrus eating. 

Much like apples and pears, which are available from cold storage well into spring, kiwis are a nice alternative to imported fruit during the winter months. What we now call kiwi or kiwifruit was long referred to as “Chinese gooseberry” in New Zealand, where the fruit flourished after being brought from China early in the last century. In the 1960s, when the then-exotic fruit was introduced in California, it was dubbed the kiwi after the national bird of New Zealand.

Swanton Berry Farm has been leasing six acres of 35-year-old organic kiwi vines (formerly Coastways Ranch) along Highway 1, just 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, since 2004. And they’ve brought their fruit to Ferry Plaza every winter since. Since kiwis don’t ripen on the vine here, they are picked in October and November, stored, and then ripened in batches throughout the winter. According to Tim Hudson, one of the farmers and co-owners at Swanton, 10 days of room temperature storage, following at least 10 days of refrigeration, ripens the fruit they pick.

Nancy and Robin Gammons of Four Sisters Farm, who have been growing organic kiwis since 1978, also benefit from the ability to store kiwis or ripen them at will. Before bringing a batch to the market, the Gammonses move them to a special storage unit that also contains their farm’s apples, a natural source of a ripening agent called ethylene gas. (Conventional kiwi farms use synthetic ethylene.)

According to Nancy Gammons, her husband Robin leaves the fruit on the vine “‘til the last possible minute” in November, at which point they are “as high in sugar as possible.” Kiwis grown in the Central Valley, she says, often have to be picked early to avoid a freeze.

kiwi vinesIn the 70s, when Nancy and Robin were planting their vines, there were very few sources of information on kiwis. “When we began, the only info we could get was this little booklet from Australia,” says Nancy. The kiwis took a great deal of water to get established and they also needed to be trellised, much like over-sized grape vines. But, she says, once they get going, “they’re very vigorous and they live as long as 70 years.”

Both Tim Hudson and the Nancy Gammons say that organic kiwi is a pretty reliable crop. “They require no inputs [i.e. fertilizer], and we haven’t had any problems with pests,” says Hudson. “The main work involved is pruning, which is done in the winter and determines the amount of fruit you’ll get the following fall.”

Four Sisters Farm sells around 200 pounds of the fruit on an average Saturday. “But it wasn’t always like that,” says Gammons. “Kiwis have definitely gained in popularity over the years. Once people realize they’re not actually a tropical fruit and they grow right here in California, they become a winter staple.”

See a 2007 study that suggests organic kiwis have more nutrients than conventional kiwis >