Graduate assistant Will Hastings explains best practices for growing kiwiberries to people attending a workshop at the University of New Hampshire Woodman Horticultural Research Farm. On right wearing ball cap is Assistant Professor Iago Hale, who leads the kiwiberry research effort. The vines are watered in a drip irrigation system and are supported on a wire trellis. (Rick Green/Laconia Daily Sun)

UNH professor thinks tasty Asian fruit can be state’s next big cash crop


DURHAM — Iago Hale is a man on a mission.

The University of New Hampshire assistant professor wants to see the sweet but unfamiliar kiwiberry become an agricultural success story.

At the Woodman Horticultural Research Farm, Hale, who pronounces his first name “Yaw’-go,” is growing 60 varieties of the fruit, which has a smooth skin and is about the size of a big grape.

The kiwiberry, or Actinidia arguta, is related to but has a much higher sugar content than the common fuzzy kiwi, which is a little larger than a golf ball, has a hairy skin and is a fixture in supermarket produce departments.

Best practices

Hale wants to determine the best variety for this region and best practices for growing it. His is the first strategic breeding program in the nation for kiwiberries.

Ultimately, Hale will work with growers to provide an ample supply of the best variety at a commercially viable price until the nursery industry can scale up production and bring down costs.

He explained this Tuesday evening to about 30 growers from around the state who gathered at the research farm to learn more about kiwiberries.

Essentially, Hale, who holds a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics from University of California–Davis, plans to create a new commercial crop. The way he figures it, growers, agricultural-support companies and the consumer would all benefit.

“I'm not generally an optimist, but I could see 15 to 20 years from now that we have an industry in this region that doesn't exist right now,” he said.

Blueberry lessons

It wouldn't be the first time such a thing happened.

“Take a lesson from the blueberry story,” he said. “Prior to the mid-'30s, there was no blueberry production per se, just wild-harvested blueberries.”

A botanist in New Jersey, working with researchers at the USDA, discovered blueberries needed acidic soils to thrive. Commercial production began and a new industry was born.

“Kiwiberries have a similar opportunity to create a whole agricultural sector that doesn't exist right now,” Hale said. “It's a high-value crop that we can grow.”

Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources rejected a request to add kiwiberries to its list of invasive species, another positive sign for those who want to turn this plant into a commercial crop.

Another indication is good production at the one-and-a-half acre research field at UNH. Hale works closely with graduate assistant Will Hastings, who presided over the harvest of 1,000 pounds of kiwiberries this month.

“This last year in my opinion the program has crossed a threshold of legitimacy,” Hale said.

Kiwiberry history

Native to Eastern Asia, kiwiberry plants thrive in the Northeast climate. They were first introduced in New England in 1876, but never took hold commercially and most consumers don't know about them.

They were originally sold as ornamental vines and many people didn't realize until decades after introduction that they will bear fruit when both male and female plants are present. Under the "bigger is better" philosophy, kiwiberries were shunned by growers for years in favor of the larger fuzzy kiwi, which also can be stored for longer.

But Hale thinks the time is now right for kiwiberries. They are sweeter and easier to eat than their hard-skinned relative. They thrive here and fit in nicely with the movement favoring local produce.

Locally sourced

“There has been a huge shift in the food culture,” Hale said. “Bigger is not necessarily better. High-quality seasonal fruit is desirable. There is a culture around local food and highly nutritious local produce.”

He feels there is no comparison between kiwiberries and the larger, fuzzy kiwi.

“Kiwiberries are easier to eat and taste much better,” he said. “I have a problem eating fuzzy kiwi from the store.

“You might be lucky if it gets up to 10 percent sugar. We wouldn't market kiwiberries if they were under 20 percent sugar.”

Making wine

The sugar content of kiwiberries rivals that of wine grapes.

Bob Manley, of Hermit Woods Winery in Meredith, poured a glass of the white wine, made from fermented kiwiberries, on Wednesday.

“It's got a unique flavor,” he said. “It's got fruitiness on the front and then a dry finish. There's zero percent residual sugar left in the wine, so when you actually let it go down your throat you start to pick up that dryness, but on the front it's fruity. It almost perceives as sweet.”

Manley said food that would go well with this wine include Thai cuisine, salads, salmon or cured meat. He also uses kiwiberries to make a sweet, dessert wine.

He makes wine with organic kiwiberries he gets from the Kiwi Korners farm in Central Pennsylvania.

Manley is hopeful that one day, he will be able to get his kiwiberries closer to home.

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