AURORA, Ore. — Bernadine Strik had a dream. It was 1990, and she was working as a professor and berry crop researcher at Oregon State University, where she still works today.
Her dream was to add another berry choice for growers in the Pacific Northwest. Today, she’s watching that dream unfold. And the berry of choice? Kiwis.
Kiwifruit, a type of berry, is a climbing vine native to Asia. The most common kiwifruit species is Actinidia deliciosa, or the “Hayward” cultivar, an egg-sized fruit with brown, fuzzy skin and green flesh. A smaller, olive-sized variety is called the Actinidia arguta, or “kiwiberry.” Its interior looks like a miniature Hayward, but its exterior is smooth and often blush-colored.
Strik planted both varieties in the 1990s. The kiwiberry was more successful.
“It’s been really exciting,” said Strik. “It’s an amazing fruit.”
She ducked under a canopy of trellises to escape the midday sun. Strik was standing in her trial vineyard at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora.
Growing kiwis in Oregon has proved to be a steep learning curve, said Strik. For years, she has experimented with cultivars, irrigation methods, storage and pruning techniques.
The Hayward variety comes from Southeast Asia, and California leads in U.S. production, so it’s been challenging to grow the variety through Oregon’s winter cold snaps.
Kiwiberries, which originate from colder Northeast Asia, have fared better through frost. Strik has been perfecting her technique of overhead irrigation for frost protection.
Despite challenges, Strik said the industry is picking up momentum, and she sees “huge potential” for expansion if growers set up contracts in advance.
It can cost more than $30,000 per acre in cumulative establishment costs to break into the industry, but growers who have are “tasting the fruits” of their labors.
Oregon only has about 25 acres of Haywards but is now the nation’s No. 1 producer of kiwiberries, with about 250 acres.
Kiwiberries can be eaten in their entirety. Their flavor is sweet and strong, with floral notes.
The main downside is, in contrast to Haywards, which store well for six months, kiwiberries are seasonal. They are harvested September through October and last 4 to 8 weeks.
The industry is already worth at least $2 million in Oregon.
Mark Hurst, co-owner of Hurst Berry Farm and managing director of HBF International in McMinnville, Ore., said he gets a much better return on kiwiberries than blueberries.
He was first exposed to Strik’s experimental kiwiberries in the early 1990s, and recalls thinking: “This is a pretty awesome piece of fruit.”
Hurst planted vines on his own property and contracted with several other growers.
HBF International continues to expand its kiwiberry operation. Hurst started with a variety called “Ananasnaya.” To extend the season, Hurst recently added about 65 acres of a new variety with longer shelf life, called “Hortgem Tahi,” licensed from New Zealand.
Hurst said he couldn’t have done it without Strik.
“She’s awesome,” he said. “She did so much to get this industry going.”
Strik plans to retire Dec. 31, but growers say the innovations she’s left are just the beginning of Oregon’s kiwi industry.