With the prices of corn, cotton, tobacco and soybeans plummeting, Southern farmers in the mid-1980s were willing to consider replanting their fields with crops they might not recognize at the grocery store. Chief among them in the Lowcountry was the fuzzy-skinned kiwifruit.
L.D. Holmes Jr., South Carolina’s first commercial kiwi grower, discovered the fruit when his wife brought home a sample from a dieters’ meeting. As the peach farmer told The News and Courier in 1985, “That thing may have looked funny, but it was delicious.” It also bore a New Zealand import sticker and a 70-cent price tag. “I figured I could make some money on kiwi if they’d grow here,” Holmes said.
Holmes wasn’t the only grower intrigued by kiwi. State Agriculture Commissioner Leslie Tindal was so taken with the fruit’s promise that he planted kiwi vines on his farm, and urged fellow South Carolinians to do the same. “It could possibly become an important commodity in the extreme lower part of the state,” Clemson fruit specialist Ansel King said.
In 1985, Hortex opened a kiwi nursery on 10 rented acres at Pritchard & Company’s Wando Farms, located between Mount Pleasant and Awendaw. Pritchard & Company also planted an adjacent orchard.
“We want this fruit to become associated with Charleston,” Pritchard & Company president J. David Hawkins said in 1987. “We would like to encourage restaurants and bars to have kiwi desserts and kiwi daiquiris.”
Originally marketed as a Chinese gooseberry, kiwifruit was first exported to the U.S. in the 1950s. Harry & David’s Fruit of the Month Club briefly promoted the sweet-fleshed curiosity in 1964, describing it as “scarcer than screen doors on a submarine.” Although Californians started growing kiwis during the same decade, the kiwi remained largely unknown outside of New Zealand until the 1980s, when French chefs embraced it.
“There was nary an upscale restaurant in Europe or the United States that was not laying down slices of kiwi as a garnish, brushed in bright green strokes across paillards of free-range chicken, scalloped atop dessert tarts,” according to a report by The New York Times. When that story was published in 1987, nearly nine out of every 10 U.S. food retailers stocked kiwis (also known as suede potatoes and hairy berries.)
But the popularity surge dented the fruit’s economic prospects. Because New Zealanders failed to trademark “kiwi,” growers around the world planted vines, creating a year-round supply. Suddenly, ubiquitous kiwis shed their cachet, showing up on the salad bar at Sizzler. Global abundance caused kiwi prices to dip.
Most discouraging for South Carolinians was cold, windy weather that killed off their initial kiwi investments: Kiwis require 235 frost-free days to thrive.
In 1988, Horry County farm agent William Witherspoon urged farmers to think carefully before anteing up the $17,500 needed to plant an acre of kiwis. “I’m bothered by the lack of a track record that will tell us if it is or is not a good crop for our part of the state,” he told The News and Courier.
Kiwis still grow off U.S. Highway 17, but the crop never delivered the fortunes dangled before frustrated farmers in the mid-1980s.
“I’ll tell you, it’s just been a terrible experience in my book,” Bobby Malphrus of Ridgeland told The Savannah Morning News in 1999. “We have never made a dime off of it.”