It’s unlikely kiwifruit will ever rival peaches as one of Alabama’s most popular treats, but Auburn University (AU) scientists and researchers are working hard to make it at least more palatable to the public if only given a chance.
Bill Dozier and Jim Pitts have already shown, while kiwifruit may be indigenous to China and New Zealand, Alabama’s moderate climate most of the year also provides a perfect place to grow it.
Dozier and members of his staff in Auburn and Pitts, who oversees operations at the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (AAES) in Chilton County, have studied kiwifruit for years and have gained national reputations for their research.
Now, something special has happened—an agreement in which Auburn University and China’s Hubei Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ Institute of Fruit and Tea are co-developers and co-owners of two new varieties of kiwifruit.
The agreement is in its patent pending stage right now, but Dozier and Pitts are confident it will lead not only to big sales of the new varieties, but revenue enhancements for several entities as well.
"If all goes like we think it will, there could be a lot of money involved in this partnership," said Dozier. "The University and the Chinese group as well as the growers all stand to benefit financially from the agreement that has been reached."
Pitts said the nutritional value alone of kiwifruit is a super selling point, but admits: "It may also take time to acquaint people to its color, taste and other benefits."
Dozier, who is a professor in the AU Department of Horticulture, has been assisted by James Spiers, assistant professor of fruit crops, and Bryan Wilkins, research associate, in successful studies in Auburn and Chilton County.
Originally known as the Chinese Gooseberry, kiwifruit owes its new name to slick New Zealand exporters who came up with flashier moniker, something with a bit more pizzazz. That’s how "kiwifruit" was born in the 1950s.
The Kiwi bird is New Zealand’s national symbol and often is used to promote the little "Down Under" country near Australia.
Before that name came along, it was known alternately as a Mascaque peach or pear, as "wood berry," "hairy bush fruit" or even "wonder fruit." Whatever the name then or now, it’s the shape and taste that have attracted a lot of attention around the world.
The two new varieties being perfected by Auburn scientists and researchers are known as Golden Dragon and Golden Sunshine. They have smooth skin and a golden color inside. They are also much sweeter than the somewhat tart, more familiar fruit that is fuzzy brown on the outside and egg-shaped with a green interior color.
Chilton County has been known for its peach production since the late 1940s and honors the fruit every summer with a week-long festival. It’s a multi-million dollar crop and the celebration commemorates its importance to the county and region.
AAES researchers have been studying kiwifruit without much fanfare since 1985 to see if it would be feasible to grow it as a productive crop. After more than two decades of research, its obvious results have justified the decision to grow kiwifruit in both Central and South Alabama.
"We know with certainty kiwifruit will grow here and grow well," Pitts told Jamie Creamer of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station’s Office of Communications.
Kiwifruit has amazed and pleased researchers because it’s been able to flourish in all kinds of weather conditions throughout the year. That includes chilly temperatures that, at times, have hurt peach crops in Chilton County.
AAES researchers have believed for years kiwifruit production could not only be possible, but profitable as well. They felt that way long before the agreement was reached with Chinese officials to co-develop the two new varieties.
Unlike peaches, which are supported by sturdy trees and can be picked from their limbs, kiwifruit is grown on trellises which support a much heavier load—the fruit and the branches. Pickers must be careful not to squeeze them too much during harvest time because they are much more fragile than peaches.
Vines holding the kiwifruit can reach heights of 25 feet or more. That’s why sturdy trellises are needed to support the weight of the fruit and the branches.
Developers of the golden-hued kiwifruit point to several advantages over traditional green kiwifruit. For one thing, the golden variety is sweeter, has less acidic content and tends to be more attractive to consumers looking for appearance as well as taste.
With no pun intended, Dozier believes there is a "golden opportunity" for success with the golden kiwifruit once the patent is firmly secured and production can begin.
He said major fruit marketers should be interested in offering the Golden Dragon and Golden Sunshine kiwis to consumers around the country.
The standard kiwifruit often is used as a garnishment with other food, but can also be consumed "as is." The "golden" kiwis are as delicious as a peach just picked off trees in Chilton County orchards, according to Dozier. Pitts said kiwifruit’s nutritional value makes it worth eating either alone or as an ingredient in fruit cups and other recipes.
Instead of grabbing a peach off a tree in some orchard, those who taste kiwifruit usually cut it in half and scoop out the contents. The skin can be consumed, but, with a hairy exterior, it may not be visually "ripe" for the occasion. In New Zealand, kiwifruit lovers have their own special spoons to dish out the delicious interior.
Pitts said appearance may be one of the reasons why peaches have an advantage over kiwifruit. He said it and other U.S.-grown fruit tend to change color as they ripen. Not so for kiwifruit which retain its outer color throughout its ripening stage.
Money has a way of talking, however, and those who grow peaches may one day learn just how lucrative kiwifruit can be for them.
Dozier said, if the fruit catches on in Chilton, growers could realize a return of up to $50,000 an acre as compared to $4,000-6,000 an acre for peaches. He also said once patent details are completed "we can license the kiwifruit to major nurseries so that growers can buy them and begin production."
"It would appear right now that the golden varieties represent a good supplement to peaches," he said. "One reason is the fact that the kiwifruit we’re developing ripen later in the year while peaches usually are picked by late summer. This would give Chilton County and others who grow peaches a year-round product to sell."
Matthew Price, Pitts’ top assistant at the research facility in Chilton County, keeps an eye out for development of kiwifruit "sleeping" behind a large green windscreen fence just across the road from his office.
"We make sure we check these trellises as often as possible," said Price, who looks closely at buds that aren’t expected to sprout until later this year.
Foreign kiwifruit growers and those in California ship it across the U.S., but they are not as readily available in large quantities as peaches, plums, apples, blueberries and other forms of fruit when they are in season.
Educating the public about kiwifruit could be a major hurdle, but Pitts said Alabamians are slowly learning more about it. It’s been that way during the past two decades since it was introduced to the area.
Pitts said when the first kiwifruit was made available, school groups would drop by to tour the experiment station and he never missed an opportunity to test their knowledge of the new fruit.
"I’d ask them to raise their hands if they could tell me what it was and only a few did," he said. "Some would even try to eat a few. Now, it’s a different story. The children are aware of what kiwifruit is."
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.