Kiwi Fruit – The true underdog of California agriculture

We have all glanced at it in the grocery store and then looked the other way. Often tucked in the corner, near the tropical fruit. I’m sure the average produce guy has no idea what to do with it, where to put it or how to sell it. Many of us have zero idea where it even comes from, let alone what it tastes like. It’s oddly shaped, a little like an egg, with its brown fuzzy skin and bright green interior. No one is really sure weather it’s okay to eat the skin or just peel it. The kiwi fruit is an odd little number. Like many of the fruits and vegetables that we see today, kiwi has had an interesting journey and transformation from a wild growing ancient fruit to a commercially cultivated crop. For a brief moment in kiwifruit history here in CA it was known as the “glamour” crop and the “fruit of the future.” Here in California I’ve had the opportunity to personally meet with a few kiwi growers, toured their farms and witnessed the daily operations. Talk about salt of the earth. These are all hard working farmers, some multi generational, they really believe in their farms and work tirelessly to keep them going strong and producing that sweet treat, kiwi fruit.   

Botanically speaking, the kiwi fruit is actually a berry and it has twice the vitamin C of an orange. It is indigenous to southeast Asia where it has been known to the inhabitants of China and southeast Asia since the most ancient of times. Kiwi fruit vines can actually be found growing naturally on the edges of the forest of China’s Yangtze Valley, where it reaches heights of 30 feet and more as a vigorous fruiting vine. As far as America goes, the kiwi fruit is pretty new and has had a slow start gaining popularity with its fruit loving citizens. In the kiwi’s defense though, these days most American’s think strawberry flavoring contains actual strawberries.                

The kiwi fruit found its humble beginnings at the turn of the 20th century when the United Stated Department of Agriculture received seeds from Consul – General Wilcox in Hankow, China in 1904.  Six years later the growing vines were bearing fruit at the Plant Introduction Field Station located at Chico, California in 1910. Around the same time in 1905, Rev.Hugh White passed along some seeds to the U.S.D.A. from the Chinese province of Kiangsi.

In 1917, the agricultural explorer, Frank Meyer, sent back to Washington D.C., seeds from fruits he found growing near Lung to Ping, Hupeh, ranging in size from “that of a gooseberry to a good size plum”. A plant from this introduction was given to Mr. William Hertrich of San Gabriel, CA. It had perfect flowers and bore fruit “of good size and quality”. Mr. Hertrich reproduced it by cuttings and in 1919 supplied some of the plants to the Station at Chico.

There are over 40 known kiwifruit varieties in production around the world, but in California the Hayward variety is grown – the most popular variety, known for their large size and high sugar content. All kiwifruits are perennial vine crops and typically require four years before the first crop and another four years to establish full production.

The Hayward variety was discovered in Auckland in the 1920’s and cultivated here in the U.S. by the 1930’s. The “Hayward” was introduced before being named back in New Zealand and was called “Chico” in California. The Hayward is the leading cultivar in New Zealand and the only commercial cultivar in California.

In 1959 a California produce dealer began importing New Zealand gooseberries to satisfy the request of a lone Safeway shopper. The dealer renamed the product “kiwifruit” because of its resemblance to the fuzzy brown kiwi – New Zealand’s funny-looking national bird. By the late 1960s, California began producing its own kiwifruit in the Delano and Gridley areas.

In 1964, “kiwiberries” were on special order from Oregon based Harry and David’s Fruit of the month Club. The brochure exclaimed “You had better order now,” “they’re scarcer that screen doors on submarines.”

The first commercial plantings were laid in 1967, by 1971 at least 100 acres had been planted in California.

Kiwi Growers of California, was organized in 1972 and incorporated in 1975 to sponsor research and exchange publish information.

The California Agricultural Statistics Service first reported kiwifruit acreage data in 1974, consisting of 56 bearing acres and 349 non bearing acres.

In 1977 the first significant commercial crop of 300,000 seven pound trays of kiwi fruit was packed.

In 1977 there were over 1,100 acres planted with kiwifruit vines, but only 10% of the plants had reached fruit bearing age.

1981 The California Kiwifruit Commission is established to assist growers, handlers and kiwifruit industry professionals

Acreage and production numbers to chew on:

In 1982 and 1983, 3.2 million seven pound trays were packed in California.

In 1985 4,800 acres were harvested for a total of 6.2 million seven pound trays

In 1986 5,600 acres were harvested for a total of 7.3 million seven pound trays

In 1988 7,100 acres were harvested for a total of 9.3 million seven pound trays

In 1992 7,300 acres of kiwifruit were harvested for a total of 14.9 million seven pound trays

In 1997 5,390 acres of kiwifruit were harvested for a total of 10.9 million seven pound trays

In 2000 4,678 acres of kiwifruit were harvested for a total of 9.1 million seven pound trays

In 2006 3,702 acres of kiwifruit were harvested for a total of 7.4 million seven pound trays

In 2012 3,700 acres were harvested for a total of 8.45 million seven pound trays

In 2013 3,800 acres were harvested for a total of 8.6 million seven pound trays

In 2014 4,027 acres were harvested for a total of 7.4 million seven pound trays

In 2017 4,536 acres of kiwifruit were harvested for a total of 11.1 million seven pound trays

In 2018 3,900 acres were harvested for a total of 10.8 million seven pound trays

Kiwifruit has had its fair share of ups and downs throughout the years. In recent years though, a flood of imported Italian and Chilean kiwi has dragged down the prices in the U.S., and that has put many kiwi growers out of business. California’s number one competition in the industry comes from New Zealand.

Currently there are fewer than 300 kiwifruit growers in California, each farming an average of just 13 acres. Even so, California produces around 98% of the kiwifruit grown in the U.S.

The California kiwifruit season runs from October – May with most of the fruit being harvested in October and early November. Kiwi fruit is grown in most areas of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys where peaches and fruit are grown.  

And yes, you can eat the skin.

Published by Jason Stroh

I am a Los Angeles based food stylist and chef

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