NZ finding its legs with baby kiwifruit

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NZ finding its legs with baby kiwifruit

It may be a small fruit but its having a big impact on the world stage. The KiwiBerry, known around the world under names such as Baby Kiwi, Cocktail Kiwi, Arguta or Kiwee, is a small version of the kiwifruit and its making a splash.

Produce Partners New Zealand managing director Alan McMeiken, told while the hairless, grape-sized fruit looks like a kiwifruit when cut, it is actually more like a berry.

"It has a more intense tropical flavor. It’s definitely kiwifruit flavour - but tropical, that’s the word. It’s a really nice product," he says.

McMeiken's company handles about 80% of New Zealand's KiwiBerry crop, but he actually didn't know about the fruit until meeting a U.S. blueberry grower who grew it.

"He raved about the product, saying how great they were doing domestically and said how we should grow them in New Zealand," says McMeiken.

It turned out they were already growing there having been first planted in the 1950's on the South Island, but it wasn't until the 1980's that a proposal was made to the Kiwifruit Authority to consider growing it, according to New Zealand KiwiBerry Growers’ Incorporated chairman Peter Berry.

"There was then a long chain of research committees that came up with 14 different cultivars," he says.

Growing pains

Kiwi Produce manager Geoff Oliver says there's 'virtually no-one who doesn't like' the KiwiBerry, which is 'no fuss' and ready to eat, making it very popular with kids.

But there are only five varieties available in New Zealand, and Oliver says only two or three of them are viable.

"It is difficult. It’s slow to start off with; it’s about three to four years before you get any production. It takes a lot of winter pruning," he says.

"It’s very labor intensive in the pruning. And its labor intensive to harvest."

He says the plants are 'vigorous', making their cultivation very much a learning process as they are grown quite differently to the traditional green and golden kiwifruit. In New Zealand, harvesting has to take place within a very short window of about five weeks during April and May.

Having packed the tiny fruit for several years, Oliver is very aware of the speed at which the fruit has to be distributed.

"It does have a short shelf life so it has to be picked, packed and shipped in a cool chain and it’s very important to get that right."

Supply and demand

McMeiken says his company simply can’t keep up with demand and the KiwiBerry is likely to remain a high-end exclusive fruit for times to come.

"We export 50,000 trays compared to 100 million trays for green and gold kiwifruit. It is really a boutique item at this stage we are going through a lot of promotion."

While the fruit remains a niche product, New Zealand kiwifruit growers have noticed strong demand from Asian markets, while Australia is the largest destination for shipments.

"Singapore and Taiwan are the two largest (Asian) markets, China is growing rapidly. The Chinese market last year was small; this year was reasonable and for next year we already are getting inquires for fruit.

"Australia is probably the single biggest market. They're popular there and we have a good program there with one of the major chains (Coles) which takes a good volume of fruit."

Oliver says the focus is now on maximising production as it varies from season to season.

"This year we had earlier and stronger demand and we were able to harvest the crops at the best time in the past we’ve had to harvest over a long period and we’ve lost a bit of fruit," he says.

He adds that research and development are expensive and the process has been very slow in New Zealand, while overseas growers have been keen on growing the fruit.

"It’s being experimented with. The Chinese, the Japanese and the Koreans are all trying to figure it out."

Part of the Zespri family?

While the KiwiBerry looks to have a bright future, it doesn’t look like it will become a variety under Zespri, which runs New Zealand's single marketing desk system.

Company spokesperson David Courtney says it is very unlikely Zespri will pick up the fruit very soon.

"Zespri did consider Arguta as a potential export in the early 2000s, but because of poor storage quality and low yields it was decided that the variety did not have commercial qualities at that time.

"Arguta remain part of our new variety development programme, but there are no plans in the short-term to commercialise the variety."

McMeiken says he believes Zespri’s concentration is on the green and gold varieties and they simply haven’t bothered with KiwiBerry.

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