When you hit your 40s and feel like life is ripe for change, not many of us would think ‘kiwi fruit farmer’ an obvious choice. Not so for Jamie Craig. He and kiwi fruit devotee John Karl have formed a formidable partnership that has created one of the most prolific kiwi fruit orchards in Australia.
Jamie was a banker and in the late 1980s he decided he’d had enough. “I had to find something to do, and this is the place where I ended up! says Jamie. That place is Shepparton, a fertile farming region in the Goulburn Valley of Victoria, where he and business partner John have 320 hectares of orchards, 120 of which have kiwi fruit under vine. When he arrived in Australia, Jamie invested in some farms in the region, one an orchard of Nashi pears. John had a small farm in the same area, and with John’s considerable expertise as an orchardist, was head hunted by Jamie to manage his orchard too. The rest, as the say, is history, with the duo purchasing a local kiwi fruit farm when it became available. As a pair of ex-pat New Zealanders, it’s a coincidental kiwi connection that has more than beared fruit.
Whilst Jamie is the financial mind, John is the orchardist. John grew up in a dairy farming family, but his penchant for ”growing things” won out as a vocation. He spent many years shearing sheep in order to save enough money to buy his first orchard when he was 25 years old. His first experience with kiwi fruit (apart from eating copious amounts of them as a kid) was in a glasshouse nursery, raising seedling for other farms.
Once known as ‘Chinese Gooseberry’, its name was altered in the 1950s, adopting instead the name of New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi – small, brown and furry, just like the fruit.
John planted kiwi fruit for himself in the late 1970s, so has clocked up many decades’ experience for what, in New Zealand, is an easy growing fruit that has been part of that country’s farming history for over 100 years. On Australian soil, it needs a little more coaxing. Jamie and John are two of Victoria’s most respected fruit farmers (winning Victorian Fruit Grower Of The Year in 2000), and John leads the charge in industry innovation, often tapping into his kiwi connections across the ditch.
“In Australia I have to say we don’t have the most ideal climate for growing kiwi fruit. We have excellent infrastructure, but our climate is a bit too cold and a bit too hot! We have learnt now how best to handle the crop and conditions and through this experience our production levels are now up there with the best in the world,” says John.
Kiwi fruit vines are similar to those of grapes, which need to mature for several years before they bear fruit. Some of the vines on John and Jamie’s farm are almost 30 years old and still prospering. Kiwi fruit also takes a long time to ripen. Unlike berries, for example, which can ripen and demand picking within hours, kiwis can remain on the vine for up to six weeks, providing a wide harvest window, but they don’t give too much away. Visibly, they look ready to eat, but sugar level tests are needed to determine maturity. “Through our knowledge of our farm, we know which vine blocks are the first to ripen. Two weeks before harvest, sugar levels on these are tested. Once the sugar levels are at their peak, we know they’re ready to be picked,” says John.
Harvest begins at the start of April, and goes right through until the end of May. Winter signals the end of the picking season, with the onset of frosts the key driver for wrapping the harvest up. Kiwis have a great shelf life, and can last many weeks if kept in the fridge, still retaining their distinct taste.
As most farmers will tell you, the weather is their best friend, and worst enemy. The season this year was looking great up until Christmas, when extreme heat hit. Kiwi fruit vines have large leaves, which can protect them from the sun, but also provide a large surface area from which the vine can perspire almost as fast as it can retain its fluids. John says you have to be on the ball with irrigation. “You can’t afford to be even two hours late,” says John.
“The worst part of farming is the weather,” says John. “It is so variable. I have been wiped out by hail storms three times now and it is not fun – you see your whole years work and income just fall away, and it always happens right near harvest time!”
Jamie and John supply their superior kiwi fruit to our Aussie Farmers Direct customers, and it’s a great fruit to add to your daily fruit intake. Two kiwi fruits have twice the vitamin C of an orange, as much potassium as a banana and the fibre of a bowl of wholegrain cereal – and all for less than 100 calories per serve. Potassium is an essential mineral to help lower blood pressure, and one large kiwi provides 15% of the recommended daily intake of potassium. It is a fruit that is considered to have the best nutrient density of 21 commonly enjoyed fruits.