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Italy's fuzzy logic pays off

Kiwis easily replace grapes in vineyards, and can bring in three times the profit. The nation is now the No. 1 producer of the fruit.

May 20, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

CAMPOVERDE, ITALY — As the name suggests, green fields stretch in every direction here in Campoverde. But where grapes once dominated, the landscape now has a new king: kiwi.

Somewhat improbably, Italy has grown to become the world's largest producer of the odd furry fruit, according to the National Institute of Agricultural Economics, surpassing even New Zealand, which coined the name for the fruit once known as the Chinese gooseberry.

You don't think "kiwi" when you think Italy. In fact, two of the letters that spell the word don't even form part of the Italian alphabet.

Nevertheless, kiwi cultivation is booming, with annual production at more than 400,000 tons, earning millions of dollars for farmers and reviving the economy in once-moribund sections of Italy that people might have otherwise abandoned for the city.

A kiwi plant, it turns out, adapts fairly easily to the infrastructure used for grapes. It is planted along the same configuration of long, furrowed rows; The thin trunk is latched to a post, and its branches spread laterally to form a canopy, just like the grape vine. From a distance you might not even spot the difference, except that the leaves of the kiwi plant are rounder, fuller and a deeper shade of green.

Here in Italy's central Latina province, where farms replaced swampland drained during the Mussolini era, Gianni Cosmi has gradually been converting his family farm over to kiwi. He still dedicates about 50 acres to grapes, much of which ends up as wine. But 35 acres is now planted with kiwi. Sure, he agreed, it's a shift in identity. But it's a profitable one.

"With grapes and wine, there is history," Cosmi, 47, said. "With the kiwi, there is adventure."

Or, what one might call the wow factor. It is quite the attention-grabber when you say you raise kiwi, Cosmi marveled as he surveyed the rows and rows of spindly kiwi trees covering his land.

"If you provide kiwi to the world, everyone takes note," he said. "It is still seen as exotic and something different."

About 80% of Italy's kiwi production is exported, the bulk to Europe and 15% going to the United States. Italy sends kiwis at roughly the opposite end of the calendar from when other big producers such as New Zealand do, providing the U.S. a virtual year-round supply.

Even though kiwis need a lot more water than grapes, the green, tart fruit can earn three times the profit that grapes bring in, Cosmi said.

It requires a bit more manual labor, as well. Workers inspect the round pre-fruit pods for the perfect shape. Those that are judged lopsided are picked and tossed.

The fruit thrives in central Italy because of the climate, with its relatively mild winters and warm-but-not-scorching summers, and because of the area's mineral-rich volcanic soil.

And, it's naturally organic, said Cosmi, a former mayor of nearby Aprilia. No need for pesticides and only a little fertilizer.

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Italian kiwi took root here in Latina, and Renato Campoli was its pioneer. Thirty years ago, as a young man, Campoli was one of the first Italians to plant the fruit, almost on a lark.

"I was looking for something new to do in agriculture," said Campoli, suntanned and with thick white hair.

The tomatoes, beets and cows raised on his little family farm didn't yield much of a living.

A friend in Sweden had come across a mysterious fruit called a kiwi, and he challenged Campoli: Plant that!

"I didn't know a thing about it, not how to cultivate it, water it, prune it," Campoli, 57, recalled with a laugh.

That first year, he was ready to give up. He was on the verge of destroying the first several hundred boxes of kiwi that he had grown because, traveling the length and breadth of Italy, he couldn't find a buyer. Finally, an organic co-op near Lake Bolsena agreed to take the fruit.

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Slowly, Campoli built what he assumed would be a niche market. But, over time, business took off as the fruit's popularity grew across the world and Italy positioned itself to fill in the Southern Hemisphere's production gaps. Campoli's life was transformed. His five-acre farm is today a 50-acre spread. His son, who would assuredly have run off to the city in search of work, is instead getting an environmental engineering degree and will come home to run the business.

Campoli didn't even taste a kiwi before he started growing it. It was a bit strange; some of his relatives thought it too sour. Today he is expanding into a new variety of the fruit, with yellow flesh, called "Kiwigold."

The sweeter golden kiwi, unlike the green version, was patented by the New Zealand company that developed it, and so Italian growers such as Campoli have to get a license to plant it. Word has it that efforts are underway to create a red version.

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