Land near Lake Martin, just off Alabama Highway 49, harbors a secret to many.
A few miles from the lake, a 418-acre farm has sprung up, home to 37,000 thriving kiwi vines. Southeast Kiwi Farming Cooperative is the only golden kiwi fruit orchard in the United States and the only kiwi orchard east of the Rockies.
Many people think the sweet fruit is grown in California or some exotic locale. However, the farm tucks neatly into Reeltown.
“A lot of people don’t realize we’re at the back door of this small community,” said Clint Wall, orchard manager and vice president.
Wall manages the farm for Sun Pacific, a major fruit grower that owns and operates land across California. The company grows 50 percent of North America’s kiwi, with plans to triple production by 2025. While Sun Pacific sells most of the fuzzy, green kiwis – the Hayward green – sold in the U.S., its Alabama farm raises the Golden Sunshine variety, with smooth, golden-brown skin.
While California’s heat and low humidity cause golden kiwi fruit to shrivel, Reeltown has all the makings to grow golden kiwis. With its high humidity, Alabama’s climate mimics that of China, the fruit’s homeland. The elevated topography and sandy soil in the east-central part of the state allow the plants to drain well.
“This is our fifth season, and some of our vines are going into production. I’ve only done one thing in my career, and that is growing kiwi,” said Wall, who earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and a master’s degree in horticulture fruit and vegetable production from Auburn University. He performed research about kiwi fruit chilling requirements for his master’s degree.
“I got my growing experience in New Zealand, where I worked for nine years,” Wall said. In New Zealand – whose people are called Kiwis – Wall worked for a private orchard and a major pack house.
“Kiwi fruit is a small world,” he said. “The first introduction I had to Sun Pacific was in New Zealand, when the company came for a tour of the farm where I worked. I showed them around a couple of days. Later, when this project grew legs, they remembered me. I put my hand up. I was ready to come home to Alabama.”
Wall said golden kiwi is a niche market, concentrating on exports. Long term, the company’s goal is to enter the Japanese marketplace, where kiwis are enormously popular for their use in pavlova smoothies. A mixture of egg whites and sugar – with a decorative topping of kiwi – pavlova is enjoyed for its delicious taste and as a healthy dessert.
Southeast Kiwi Farming Cooperative will begin harvesting in late August. Its golden kiwis come to market in the fall and will be available from September through December.
Growing the kiwi business
Wall and his wife, Jenny, tend the vines with four other employees. Jenny also checks on fruit counts, serves as a health and safety manager, and handles invoices and administrative tasks.
“We have an extensive monitoring process,” Wall said. “Some people are experimenting with planting, but we jumped in with both feet. We have 175 total acres of fruit.”
“The golden kiwi is a real vigorous and healthy plant,” said Chilton Research and Extension Center (CREC) Director Matthew Price, whom Wall consults for strategies for growing golden kiwis. “They thrive pretty well in the Southeast. In China, kiwi vines grow onto trees like kudzu does here. The vines like warm temperatures with humidity.”
From mid-October through mid-February, kiwis require 750 hours to 850 hours of “chill time” – temperatures below 45 degrees – to flower. Without those dormant hours, the vines won’t produce well. Price said central Alabama’s mostly frost-free temperatures are “just about right” to allow kiwis to flower.
It’s a delicate dance keeping the plants happy, said Price, who earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Auburn and is working on his master’s degree in crop, soil and environmental science.
The vines need a lot of water to produce fruit, but they don’t like “wet feet,” Price said.
“The roots don’t need to be in water,” said Price, who has worked at the CREC for 20 years. “After a heavy rain, that’s a big negative for kiwi fruit.”
The farm’s five large reservoirs hold up to 100 acres of surface water. Overhead irrigation is provided over 180 acres. Two pumping stations with a total of seven engines – five diesel and two electric – supply water, not only for irrigation, but also to coat plants with a thin layer of ice to protect them in case of frost when temperatures drop. During the summer, the overhead sprinklers raise the humidity.
“I’m one of the only people using diesel motors for frost protection,” Wall said.
The farm has gained renown among horticulturists from Auburn, Georgia Tech and Clemson universities, who have visited to learn more about how to grow kiwis. Representatives from the Alabama Farmers Federation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies have been on-site.
“Golden kiwi is a new commodity,” Wall said. “We’ve tried to make ourselves available to state and federal agencies that have shown interest.”
Curbing non-native pests
The past few years, Alabamians have become increasingly aware of stink bugs, which somehow manage to infiltrate homes. Alabama has native brown and green stink bugs.
The infamous brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) hurt kiwis. Native to China, Japan and Korea, the invasive species likely traveled to the U.S. in shipping containers from China.
“Stink bugs sting the fruit and can cause direct damage to our product,” Wall said. “You can’t spray your way out of the problem. We use pheromone traps. Ultimately, overseas, many farmers put netting over the orchards. Eventually, we may have to fully enclose the area here.
“That would be a pretty big project,” he said. “We’d be installing a 2-mil gap, mesh netting over the entire property. We’re building structures with netting on a small scale, to test it.”
The Samurai wasp from China, a natural enemy of the brown marmorated stink bug, is slowly establishing itself in New England.
“With some luck, the insect will make its way down South in about five years,” Wall said. “It’s against state law to move an insect. You can’t move species across to the South.”
Price said Alabama’s stink bugs “don’t pester kiwi very much.”
“Last year, the marmorated stink bug really did enjoy our kiwi and peaches,” Price said.
The health benefits of kiwis are promoted far and wide by physicians and nutritionists.
Classified as a “super fruit” similar to acai, blueberries and pomegranates, kiwis boost the immune system. The fruit contains antioxidants believed to prevent damage to cells and is a good source of fiber. Kiwis have an enzyme called actinidin that helps break down protein and can help digestion. That same enzyme makes the fruit a good meat tenderizer.
“My wife and I used to make a puree and use it to marinate lamb, such as mutton, for about 15 minutes,” Wall said.
“The fruit is jammed full of antioxidants, with more vitamin C than an orange, more fiber and potassium than a banana, and it’s got vitamins A and E,” he added. “It’s more holistic to take iron supplements with kiwi. If you consume kiwi with iron, your body can absorb it more.”
Wall said that residents can feel good about kiwis and the farm that is bringing more sweet benefits to Alabama.
“This is a huge opportunity – kiwi is not as simple as some other fruit commodities,” he said. “It’s not easy to take a new commodity onto a high-demand market, and it’s a challenge to meet our high quality-control standards.
“Our goal is to grow golden kiwi successfully,” Wall said.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Shorelines.