Kiwi are now plentiful at farmers markets, but they're not always easy to find in prime condition. To produce high-quality kiwis, growers need to apply crop-specific expertise in pollination, pruning, irrigation, ripening and storage. Many farmers market vendors are generalists for whom kiwis are a minor sideline, so they sometimes bring rock-hard fruit that never ripens, or improperly stored specimens that have shriveled, softened and developed off flavors. At their best, however, local recently harvested kiwis have an intense vibrancy that is often missing in long-stored commercial fruit.
Kiwi is native to China, where the fruit was gathered from the wild for millennia. It was domesticated starting in 1904 in New Zealand, where the green-fleshed, long-storing Hayward was selected and became the predominant variety. Kiwi seeds reached the United States as early as 1898, but commercial cultivation began only in the mid-1960s.
A surprising number of California growers today are elderly veterans of the great kiwi boom of the following decades, when kiwi was the hot new fruit. Acreage zoomed from 80 in 1976 to 9,000 two decades later. Farmers planted several hundred acres in Southern California before they realized that the area's winters were too warm for dependable harvests. Robert Knight Sr., 90, a pioneer kiwi grower in Redlands and longtime farmers market vendor, ripped out all but one acre of his vines in the last four years and now sells only to schools.
There are some cold pockets near the Central Coast where kiwi flourishes. Robert Haussler of Templeton died a year ago at 93, but a worker for his son, David, continues to bring excellent kiwis to the Santa Monica Sunday market.
Most of the state's 4,200 acres of kiwis are in the San Joaquin Valley, where the harvest starts at the end of October. Harriet Weerheim, 82, and her son Glen bring superb kiwis from Tulare to the Torrance Saturday market, where they often sell out early. Harry Nicholas, 90, offers perfectly ripe kiwis from Orange Cove at the Santa Monica Wednesday, Virginia Park, and Beverly Hills markets.
Some vendors, such as the Soledad goat cheese stand at the Hollywood market, sell misshapen kiwi culls, which look ugly but taste the same as a regular fruit, and they're a bargain price, three for $1.
Santa Monica Saturday Downtown Market Manager Retires
The longtime manager of the Santa Monica Saturday Downtown farmers market Mort Bernstein, will retire Dec. 29, he has announced in a letter circulated to market vendors.
Laura Avery, supervisor of the Santa Monica markets, and manager of the Wednesday market, said that she will share responsibility for managing the Saturday Downtown market for the next six months with Jodi Low, manager of the Sunday market. Darra Henigan, another market staffer, also may become involved once she returns from maternity leave, she added.
Bernstein has earned a reputation as a serious, highly professional manager who does not suffer fools gladly. He is thoughtful and intense, with a wry sense of humor, but he can be sarcastic in responding to what he perceives to be inane comments or demands. He cares greatly about market integrity, and over the years he ejected from the market more than half a dozen farmers he believed were selling purchased produce as their own. He devised a system of pennants on poles to identify organic growers at the market and designed a market kiosk at which customers can look up the farming practices used by each grower.
Born in 1946 in Hollywood, where his father was comptroller of the Hollywood Palladium, Bernstein earned a bachelor's degree in architecture from UC Berkeley, and a master's in film and television from UCLA. He worked as a producer and director for a public television station in San Francisco and won two Emmys as a producer. He then wrote screenplays and pitched stories, and when that didn't pan out, around 1980 he turned to selling real estate. In December 1991, after the real estate market crashed, he took a part-time job as manager of the Santa Monica Saturday Downtown farmers market, six months after it opened.
Since 2000, he also has worked full time for the Los Angeles Unified School District for which he currently serves as relocation program manager, using the city's power of eminent domain to purchase land for building schools. Working six days a week has been exhausting, said Bernstein, and as much as he enjoyed managing the market, he is looking forward to sleeping late on Saturdays, and to visiting the market as a customer with his wife, Rikki.
There will be a reception honoring Bernstein for farmers and customers at Locanda Del Lago restaurant next Saturday, Dec. 15, from 2 to 4 p.m.