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Kiwi, Act II

New Zealand tries to reclaim its national fruit in a world now full of competitors.

May 08, 2002|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAY OF PLENTY, New Zealand — 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.

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