NIPOMO, Calif. — Bob Criswell’s parents bought a neglected farm 25 years ago and the family began the task of learning all about kiwifruit.
“They didn’t know anything about farming so it was a leap from the retail industry,” he said. “There was a man living on the property who was watering to keep the vines alive. He knew all about kiwifruit so he became our teacher.”
The Criswells learned how to prune the vines, grafting, installing trellises for the 6-foot vines and also learned kiwifruit is a low maintenance crop. Kiwifruit does not attract pests so chemical sprays are not needed.
Kiwifruit is mostly grown from the Sacramento area south to Fresno.
“We are located near the coast where the fog keeps the temperatures lower,” he said. “We harvest in November, unlike the hotter areas that pick in October. Our kiwi has a distinct flavor. They are not as tart as those you find in grocery stores. We are on a mesa near Pismo Beach and the soil is 100 percent sand that seems to percolate.”
The kiwifruit is picked green. The sugar levels are low, the fruit is rock hard and inedible. Next, the fruit is placed in a 10-by-6-foot air-tight ripening chamber with boxes of ripe apples. After four to five days, ethylene gas builds up and the kiwi is ripe and sweet for the market.
Workers hand pick around 80,000 pounds during the season. The fruit that is not sold immediately goes into cold storage, like apples, to ward off spoilage.
“Kiwi is not a huge moneymaker like strawberries, but we are the only growers in this area,” Criswell said. “We do not market our fruit with a broker. We only sell to local stores and at farmers’ markets.”
The biggest misconception about the furry fruit is that it is tropical. Just like grapes, the vines need cold in the winter so the crops can’t grow in a tropical climate. Many consumers think New Zealand — with which the kiwifruit is commonly associated — is tropical. Criswell said the heavier the frost in the dormant months, the better the fruit.
U.S. kiwifruit production trails Italy, New Zealand and Chile by significant margins. Although there are fewer than 300 growers in California, 98 percent of the kiwifruit grown in the nation comes from the Golden State.
Kiwifruit’s popularity exploded in the 1970s. It was a fad then because it was only available four to five months out of the year because it shipped from New Zealand.
Kiwifruit is the most nutrient-dense fruit with 2 times the vitamin C of an orange and 20 percent more potassium than a banana.
Criswell said people still ask how to eat one.
“I tell customers that skin is edible too with just a slight hint of bitterness,” he said. “Just wash it first and eat the whole fruit. The skin tastes similar to that of a peach.”
Mallard Lake Ranch
Name: Bob Criswell
Family involved: Wife, Kristen, and parents, Jane and Don Criswell
Location: Nipomo, Calif.