Kiwi, Act II

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A three-story-high billboard of a hairy berry announces that this is kiwifruit country. Sure enough, driving into the temperate rim of farmland surrounding the Bay of Plenty, the country's pine forests, dairy farms and sheep holdings give way to a crazy quilt of orchards. Some 2,100 different holdings, covering 24,000 acres, are screened off from each other by towering cypress windbreaks.

Kiwifruit is not so much big here as mythic. The seeds that a traveling evangelist brought back from China in 1904 have grown into a $350-million crop, New Zealand's No. 1 horticultural commodity. Pass through an airport anywhere in the country, and the gift shops will be stacked with kiwifruit jam, kiwifruit chutney, kiwifruit jellies, chocolate-covered kiwifruit and sun-dried kiwifruit. The name comes from "kiwi," the Maori name for a small, flightless bird but is also synonymous with New Zealanders themselves. Just as Britons are "limeys," New Zealanders are "kiwis."

Why then are New Zealanders now insisting that their kiwifruit--the same familiar green-fleshed berry that they worked so hard to popularize--must be labeled with the computer-generated neologism Zespri?

The brand-name kiwifruit, they say, has become generic. In the first century spent perfecting the kiwifruit, New Zealand never patented its best-selling fruit variety or copyrighted the brand name. Since 1931 in the United States and 1970 worldwide, new varieties of fruit have commonly been patented, guaranteeing the breeders who develop them royalties to repay the years, even decades, of scientific trials that it takes to come up with a winner.

Even without a patent, the trademark "kiwifruit," if copyrighted, could have become the same kind of powerful marketing tool for New Zealand fruit growers that the term Xerox is for the U.S. photocopier company.

With the fruit type and its trade name left unprotected, Italy, Chile, France, Greece, China, Japan and the U.S. all started planting vines taken from New Zealand and calling the fruit "kiwifruit." By 1990 kiwifruit was as likely to come from Emilia-Romagna as the Bay of Plenty. By 1992 the glut was such that the market collapsed and the New Zealand kiwifruit industry had gone broke.

It was the cruelest of indignities. New Zealand was beaten at its own game, by its own fruit, bearing its own name.

But instead of curling up and dying, New Zealand rebounded. As harvest approaches this month, New Zealand has not only a new name but a new type of fruit, a mango-sweet yellow variety, Zespri Gold. It wants its markets back, and no sacrifice, no fizzy brand name, no gimmick is too painful or too silly.

It's too early to say whether it will work. In the 1960s, California was the first successful export market for New Zealand kiwifruit. We are, say Zespri's marketing department, "early adapters." But so far we haven't exactly adapted Zespri Gold. Since its release in 2000, only a trickle of the fruit has arrived. This summer, however, there are almost 3,000 tons of gold fruit headed for U.S. supermarkets. To sell it, we can expect Zespri-sponsored chefs on TV, Zespri demonstrators in supermarkets, Zespri recipes in women's magazines ... in short, a full-court Zespri press.

Even if some of the stunts sound silly, New Zealand's competitors here in the U.S. cautiously applaud the antics. Behind the stunts, they say, New Zealand is doing state-of-the-art fruit breeding. When it comes to marketing the finished fruit as anything from cocktail ingredient to potential cancer cure, branding fruit is rarely an exercise in dignity. Witness the Chiquita banana lady.

Taming the Wild Berry

To appreciate just how important kiwifruit is to New Zealand, it helps to understand how difficult it is to domesticate a wild fruit in the first place. Farming is not foraging. Cultivated fruits must grow consistently, have disease and pest resistance, taste good, look good, ship well and store well.

Only four major fruits and nuts were successfully domesticated in the 20th century. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was responsible for three of them: avocados, macadamia nuts and blueberries. New Zealand, a country the size of Colorado, got the fourth: the kiwifruit.

It might have been four out of four for the U.S., had early California growers had a better understanding of the kiwifruit's sexual proclivities. Unlike many plants, which are self-pollinating, kiwifruit is dioecious, meaning the plants come in sexes, and female plants must be fertilized with pollen from a male to bear fruit.

When kiwifruit, known by the Chinese name of yang tao, was first sent from China to the U.S. in 1904, the USDA Plant Introduction Station at Chico, Calif., produced a viable combination of male and female vines. But when seeds were planted from these, the more than 1,300 seedlings then sent out for field trials were almost all male--all show, no fruit. In spite of the warmest recommendations for the plant out of China, the USDA wrote it off as an ornamental curiosity.

But at the same time, a teacher and evangelist by the name of Isabel Fraser, who had been working in China, brought yang tao seeds back to New Zealand. She gave them to neighbors who, ironically, had learned orchard management in California. They enjoyed a more fruitful mix of sexes. By the 1920s, what was known as the "Chinese gooseberry" was a sensation in New Zealand's garden catalogs.

It bore no relation to European gooseberries, other than a faint similarity in taste. But for the next 30 years, the name stuck. The region that would prove the most amenable to kiwifruit production was around the Bay of Plenty. The area, known by the Maori name Te Puke (pronounced tuh pookie), had almost all the things kiwifruit needed: mild climate, consistent rainfall, rich volcanic soil, superb drainage and a harbor with plenty of room for warehouses and fruit freighters.

Initially, like the Californians, Te Puke's farmers had trouble sexing the vines. Nurserymen drove through the region selling lots of five seedlings off the backs of trucks, the logic being that if a farmer planted enough vines, odds were decent that a female would be among them.

Auckland-based nurseryman Hayward Wright intervened. To ensure viable orchards, he popularized the practice of using scion wood, or grafts, so farmers could know exactly what sex and variety of vine they were splicing onto rootstock. Wright was also famous for his ability to select the best vine stock before the plants bore fruit.

"Quality in leaf," he believed, "reflects quality in fruit." Wright grew dozens of seedlings, selected from among them and crossbred kiwifruit vines until he had the variety we now know.

The descriptions he left behind betray a lip-smacking pleasure in the green-fleshed berry that he bred. They can be "eaten with sugar or cream in fruit salads, pies, or made into jam or jelly," he wrote. He particularly liked seeing them in "high-class fruit shops" and finding rings of kiwifruit on cakes, "the flavor imparted being very suitable for such a purpose."

During his lifetime, his cultivar went under many names, including Wright's Large Oval and Wright's Giant. But when he died in 1959, the New Zealand ministry of agriculture renamed it the Hayward Chinese Gooseberry. The supremacy of Hayward was guaranteed when research showed it could spend months in cold storage with little discernible detriment to the quality of the fruit.

This was a fruit for export.

Trades and Trademarks

Though the first U.S. laws enabling horticulturalists to protect plant variety rights came into force in the 1930s, New Zealand did not have any such laws until 1987. So when New Zealand began exporting the fruit in the 1950s, the plant was in the public domain.

The first 100 cases of Hayward Chinese Gooseberries arrived in San Francisco in 1959. Apocryphal stories abound that Americans balked at what they saw as a somehow communist fruit. In fact, it was a plant health scare, not a red scare, that caused the Chinese gooseberry problems. Real gooseberries are prone to a fungus called anthracnose.

So the Auckland fruit packers Turners & Growers floated the alternate term "melonette." That flopped when the New Zealanders came to appreciate the impact of the import tariffs on real melons. It took a Californian, the fruit importer N.L. Sondag, to ask for a short Maori name that quickly connoted New Zealand and for Turners & Growers to respond with the suggestion "kiwi."

By 1964, "kiwi berries" were on special offer from the Oregon-based Harry and David's Fruit of the Month Club. "You had better order now," warned the brochure, "they're scarcer than screen doors on submarines." Perhaps most important in popularizing the fruit in the U.S. was Los Angeles fruit trader Frieda Caplan of Frieda's Inc. Not only did she champion the import of New Zealand kiwifruit, but when the first California crop bore fruit in 1970, she bought every last berry.

As the name caught on, New Zealanders didn't think to copyright the trademark name "kiwifruit." Even if it hadn't been feasible to license the plant variety rights for the Hayward in the early 1930s, it would have been possible to patent the name kiwifruit as it caught on in the early '60s. The United Fruit Co. had registered the Chiquita banana trademark as early as 1947, three years after launching it with the Miss Chiquita character and her famous jingle.

Briefly the buzz in California was that kiwifruit was the new "glamour" crop and the "fruit of the future." Growers here began to experiment with different varieties, and all manner of kiwifruit now appear in farmers markets.

But while California started the international fashion for kiwifruit, Europe made it a craze. Sliced kiwifruit became a signature garnish of nouvelle cuisine. For pastry chefs, it became the required topping for cream tarts. The French, likening the whole fruit to mice dangling from vines, named it "souris vegetales" or "vegetable mice." Italians, noting that the fruit had twice the vitamin C content of an orange, dubbed it "frutto della salute" or "health fruit." By the 1980s, 75% of New Zealand's exports went to Europe, and the Europeans themselves were madly planting Hayward vines.

Around Te Puke, orchards were going in so fast that production more than doubled in four years. In 1986, New Zealand was exporting just more than 100,000 tons. By 1990, this had jumped to 252,000 tons. Robert Martin, market access manager for Zespri, refers to the frenzy as "that interesting time."

In 1985, kiwifruit was bringing growers in excess of $1,400 per ton. By 1987, Martin says, the price per ton had dropped to about $1,000, and in 1988 to more like $700. "That year we decided that the industry couldn't afford a competitive market system," he says. "We were going to compete each other out of business."

In November 1989 the growers voted to consolidate the export business previously split among seven competing businesses into a "single desk" monopoly, and the move was legalized by an act of parliament. But as New Zealand eliminated internal competition, external competition became ferocious. Bumper Italian kiwifruit crops, planted with the help of European Union subsidies, began bearing fruit in the late 1980s. Italy's kiwifruit crop increased more than 75% in 1989 alone. In 1990 Italy outstripped New Zealand in production.

By 1991, says Martin, the two countries were in court, embroiled in more than 107 lawsuits, with the Italians trying to block imports from New Zealand by alleging that the antipodean fruit carried excess pesticide residues.

By 1992, France, Portugal, Chile and Japan had also steamed into the international kiwifruit business, and the global fruit market crashed. "We couldn't give kiwifruit away," says Martin. New Zealand was left with 40,000 tons of kiwifruit sitting on pallets around the world. The "single desk" had already advanced growers payment at a rate of roughly $500 a ton. When the price fell to $350, "we couldn't even pay back the advance," says Martin. "We were technically bankrupt."

Reinventing Kiwifruit

The chairman of the Kiwifruit Marketing Board resigned. The debt was restructured. New planting was capped. Existing orchards were thinned. Orchard ownership fell from 3,500 holdings to 2,500. Production dropped by a fifth. The New Zealanders decided there was only thing to do: rename the national fruit, the marketing board, the whole industry with one word.

They wanted an equivalent of Kodak for kiwifruit, a word that was pronounceable in every language, says Martin, and that "didn't mean anything rude in any of them." He can't remember the other contenders on a computer-generated list. Just the winner, just Zespri. It connotes zest and Zealand and sprightliness.

The Hayward kiwifruit, darling of pastry chefs, became Zespri Green, the sports fruit. Advertisements for it show models stretching, cycling, leaping, even performing aerobics in fruit warehouses. All very perky, but behind the scenes, on a much more fundamental level, New Zealand growers were reforming crop husbandry.

After Italian allegations of pesticide regulation, the New Zealanders didn't embark on a trade war; they reformed orchard management. Hedgerows were ripped out to aerate damp orchards and cut fungus problems. Prophylactic spraying was stopped to promote beneficial insects. Along with a cleaner conventional product, Zespri now markets New Zealand's organic kiwifruit, about 5% of the national crop.

But for the marketing ploy to work, the new name needed a new fruit. Handily, New Zealand's fruit breeders came up with just that, a gold species that was sufficiently unique to be trademarked a Zespri Gold and to have the plant variety rights registered. Zespri Gold constitutes 5% of New Zealand's kiwifruit crop and is now being planted abroad by New Zealand's old competitors in the green market, not least by Italy.

But this time, says Zespri lawyer David Lazarus, Italy will have to pay for New Zealand's farm technology. Lazarus has licensed Italian farmers to grow 500 acres of the new gold kiwifruit to Zespri standards, to be sold under a Zespri label. A quirk in Italian law makes New Zealanders "virtual owners" of the farms. It now means that a product of New Zealand might be grown in Italy. Or many other countries. Similar licensing arrangements are being made in France, Japan and the U.S.

Scott Horsfall, president of the California Kiwifruit Commission, is unfazed by the incursion here, which will involve perhaps 1,000 acres and produce fruit in a couple of years. He even praises Zespri strategy, if cautiously. "It's an attempt to brand their product," he says. "They were instrumental in introducing kiwifruit to the world and instrumental in getting us started. They feel they have a unique position within the category and want to capitalize on it.

"But whether it works or not is still an open question. There's Chiquita bananas, Sun-Maid raisins, Sunkist oranges," he says, reeling off brand names, "but by and large, that kind of brand recognition is fairly rare in produce."

For a competitor, Horsfall has surprisingly genial relations with Zespri. But then, kiwifruit has never been a major crop here, even though California was the first place to embrace it. The state produces about 30,000 tons of kiwifruit, compared with New Zealand's 210,000 tons and Italy's 350,000.

To Horsfall, the problem is not foreign competition, not even overproduction, but underconsumption. Currently Americans eat only half a pound of kiwifruit a year. "If we're going to see some better times returning," he says, "we're going to have to get consumers eating them as an everyday fruit, like an apple. The biggest thing that stops people is that it's just a pain to get past the skin."

Back in Te Puke, breeders are hard at work trying to develop a kiwifruit that can be peeled by hand. Meanwhile, with the arrival of our first decent crop of his new gold fruit, expect a small tsunami of spin: kids in gold VWs they call Zespri-mobiles. Chefs mixing Zespri Bellinis. Zespri scoops, half knife and half spoon, called "spifes."

Ah, and health claims. It no longer seems good enough that kiwifruit has twice the vitamin C of an orange and the motility benefits of bran. As Zespri tells it, its New Age kiwifruit fights heart disease, is good for vision and, hey ho, what's this shiny leaflet? It is even, it seems, a sex aid. "Zespri Kiwifruit's unusual amino acid characteristics provide a source of arginine, which is a vasodilator...."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°