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California kiwi harvest starts late with good volume, good range of sizes expected

by Rand Green | October 03, 2011
Packing California kiwifruit. For this year's harvest, the fruit-size structure is not expected to be skewed as heavily to large sizes as it was last year.

"We are expecting a good crop again for the second year in a row," said Nick Matteis, assistant manager of the California Kiwifruit Commission in Sacramento, CA. At 8.6 million tray equivalents, the industry had its biggest crop in about four seasons last year. "We'll get close to that volume," but might not quite match it, he said.

The commission has estimated the 2011 crop at between 7.5 million and 8 million tray equivalents based on "a pretty conservative sizing of 39," Mr. Matteis said Sept. 27. An average size of 39 would be a little on the small side of normal.

But "I fully expect that we have the potential to be above that average size," he said, and a larger average fruit size (assuming the same number of pieces) would obviously mean a larger overall crop size.

"I think we will probably come in around size 33," he said. That would be about a normal average size.

At least one California kiwifruit shipper thinks that it is likely for the 2010 crop, industry wide, to top last year's volume and come in around 9 million trays.

"We will definitely have a wide range of sizes as compared to last season when we had a lot of very large fruit," said Mr. Matteis. Last year, the average size was around 30 and there was a lot of fruit in the 25- and 27-size range. This year, "growers and handlers I have talked to have a pretty-even distribution of sizes," which is a desirable thing from a marketing standpoint.

With California kiwifruit production spread out over more than 400 miles, conditions will vary from one ranch to another.

Jason Bushong, a salesman with Giumarra of Wenatchee in Wenatchee, WA, which markets fruit from Cal Harvest in Hanford, CA, said, "Production is telling us that the fruit size looks to be a bit smaller," with a 33-36-39 profile.

The harvest this season is starting one to two weeks later than usual, with most growers not getting started until the first or second week of October, although at least one was going on Sept. 27.

For Giumarra's crop out of Hanford, the harvest "is slightly behind," said Mr. Bushong. That has been true for just about every California commodity this year, and "we are seeing a little bit of that on kiwis."

For Western Fresh Marketing in Madera, CA, the crop "looks to be peaking on about 33s and 36s," according to Chris Kragie, deciduous fruit manager. "That's medium," he said. "But the good thing is this year we have a good bell curve. There seems to be a lot of fruit in all the sizes, where last year we were heavy, heavy, heavy on 27s and larger, the very-large fruit."

Western Fresh expected to start packing kiwifruit Oct. 3 this year, about two weeks later than last year, he said.

"I think we are going to be up 10 to 15 percent over last year" in volume with "close to 9 million trays" statewide, and with sizes "more spread out" rather than mostly large sizes like last year, said Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager at Stellar Distributing Inc. in Madera. At Stellar, the harvest started Sept. 27, "about a week later than last year," he said.

The harvest is typically finished for most growers by the end of November but may run into early December, according to Mr. Matteis. Depending on the size of crops, controlled atmosphere storage capabilities, market factors and individual marketing strategies, marketers of California kiwifruit may ship into January or February, or may continue into May or even June.

At one time, most shippers in the industry held the fruit "as long as possible," Mr. Matteis said. But increased competition from imported kiwifruit has changed that. Marketers have "different strategies. Some will move the fruit as quickly as possible," while others will "hold fruit" and move it "as steadily as they can" over a longer period.

Typically, around 75 percent of the crop is consumed domestically, although export volume tends to increase in large crop years such as 2010, he said.

The United States ranks 10th in the world in kiwifruit production, and California accounts for more than 97 percent of the commercial kiwifruit grown in the country. California had 174 growers of kiwifruit and 27 marketers last year, he said.

Kiwifruit is grown commercially from Kern County, at the southern end of California's Great Central Valley, all the way to the north end of the state, close to the Oregon state line. Tulare County and Fresno County in the Central San Joaquin Valley are the largest producing counties, but roughly one-third of the crop is grown north of Sacramento, particularly in Sutter, Butte and Glenn counties.