Chilton County is known mostly for its peaches. But just off Interstate 65, in the shadow of Clanton’s giant peach water tower, a smaller, fuzzier fruit has quietly put down roots and flourished.It’s the kiwifruit. In research that has been going on for nearly two decades at the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station’s (AAES) outlying unit in Clanton, it has proved itself a viable crop, not only for home landscapes and backyard gardens but potentially on a broader scale of production as well.”We know with certainty that kiwifruit will grow here, and grow well,” said Jim Pitts, superintendent of the Chilton Research and Extension Center (CREC). “We harvested our first full kiwifruit crop from the vines here 13 years ago, and we haven’t missed a crop since.”Researchers planted the fruit in 1985 to study its feasibility in Alabama. Plants also were set out at the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center in Fairhope, the Wiregrass Research and Extension Center in Headland and the Brewton Agricultural Research Unit in Brewton. Kiwifruit, which are native to China, don’t tolerate extreme cold. That’s why Billy Dozier, project leader for the AAES kiwifruit research, theorized in 1985 that the Fairhope, Headland and Brewton centers would have the most success growing the sweet-tart fruit.”I didn’t think they could take the colder temperatures up as far north as Clanton,” said Dozier, who is also a horticulture professor in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture. “But Clanton’s the only unit where they’re still growing and producing.”Mild winters were the major culprit in the kiwifruit’s dismal performance in the three south Alabama centers. Although the vines themselves grew with vigor at the Wiregrass, Gulf Coast and Brewton centers, they remained fruitless.Not so at Clanton, where the trellised vines are hardy and highly prolific. Based on the yields they’ve seen in the Chilton County kiwifruit crop, Pitts and Dozier estimate commercial growers in that part of the state could realize impressive yields as high as four to five tons per acre. Kiwifruit vines are actually treelike shrubs that reach heights of up to 25 feet high, so they must grow on trellises to support the sheer weight of the fruit and branches. Pitts estimated the cost at $5,000 for the recommended 340 kiwifruit vines per acre which includes trellis construction. For established kiwifruit crops, labor would be the biggest expense, because the vines must be hand-pruned at least once during the dormant season (November through February) and at least twice per growing season.Researchers have seen only minor insect and disease problems in the Alabama experiments, and those have been easily remedied with minimal pesticide use. They also have found that, in frigid weather conditions, spraying water on the trunks and scaffolding of kiwifruit vines–which creates an ice coating that keeps the plants warmer than the air temperature–is highly effective in protecting kiwifruit from freeze damage.Today, kiwifruit are available in the U.S. year-round, with New Zealand, Chile and California keeping the nation supplied. Pitts and Dozier know Alabama could not compete on a scale with New Zealand and California, but are convinced that in central and south-central Alabama, kiwifruit could be a profitable specialty crop. Nutritionally, the small kiwifruit is a powerhouse, labeled by some these days, Pitts said, as a “nutraceutical,” or a food packed with health benefits. Research indicates kiwifruit are the most nutrient-dense of all fruits. They have the highest level of vitamin C of any fruit and are an excellent source of magnesium, potassium and vitamin E.
Fuzzy Fruit Has Promising Potential