Timber, cotton, corn and even soybeans are seen in farming operations across the area but a farming operation in Reeltown is bringing what seems like an unlikely crop to the area — kiwi.
In fact Southeast Kiwi Farming Cooperative is bringing the AU Golden Sunshine kiwi to the market through its operation, which is the only one around. Orchard manger Clint Wall and his business partners opened the farm (Wednesday) to more than 100 guests invited by the Alabama Extension System for a tour.
“You would have to go to the west coast to find golden kiwis,” Wall said. “We are the only (farm) east of the Rockies.”
Wall and Alabama are no strangers to kiwis and both owe their introductions to each other to “Doc.” Doc is Dr. Billy Dozier, who through the experiment stations with Auburn University and the Alabama Extension System, introduced the commonly available green kiwi to Alabama in the 1980s. Dozier began working with the golden varieties while Wall attended Auburn.
Wall took a liking to the fruit and worked in New Zealand for a number of years before returning to the states to be closer to family.
Billy and Wayne Bassett, who own Tallassee-based sod supplier Beck’s Turf, licensed the several varieties of golden kiwi developed by Dozier. The Bassetts and Dozier were not strangers at the time as they’d done business before.
“We had licensed some chestnuts from Auburn that Dozier developed,” Billy Bassett said. “We got to thinking though we could do this too.”
Bassett said Southeast Kiwi Farming Cooperative saw a bigger potential in kiwi than just selling a few vines and decided to attempt a full-scale operation.
“We got to looking at properties,” Bassett said. “We were looking from Clanton down to Troy and found this.”
More than 40,000 kiwi vines now stretch across 175 acres of property once occupied by cattle and hay.
The Bassetts, Dozier and Wall have partnered with Sun Pacific to help take the golden kiwi to market. Wall said the company has a citrus brand many are familiar with — Cuties, a small orange many children like — but the company has interests in taking the Reeltown-grown fruit elsewhere. Wall said if the quality is in the fruit, the best market might be in Japan.
The farm has been in operation for four years and this year they are sampling the markets to see where it might best fit before a full-scale harvest next year.
Wednesday guests got to learn a little about the rare fruit as Dozier and Wall gave everyone insights into growing the fruit hosted by the Tallapoosa County Extension Service.
Dozier said the weather in the area is almost ideal to give the fruit vines the perfect mix of cold and warmth.
“These need about 800 hours of chill time,” Dozier said. “Others need more.”
Wall displayed the equipment he and others used to install thousands of posts, cables and an irrigation system to make the project work. Wall said it takes three years to get the first fruit and the vines start as something besides the Auburn golden varieties.
“We start with a green (kiwi) rootstock,” Wall said. “After letting it grow for a year getting a good root base we cut it off. We then graft two of the AU golden varieties in and start to train the vines.”
Wall said he and his team tied strings to posts above the trellis system to give the vines something to grow on then came back to remove the strings and arrange them on the trellis system.
Wall also explained the rows are staggered by male and female to allow for better pollination but the male vines are not allowed to take over much of the trellis as the female vines produce the fruit. Wall told guests the window for pollination is small.
“It’s about a week, maybe 10 days,” Wall said. “I can look at the bloom and tell if it is pollinated or if it is past.”
One thing Wall will do if it appears pollination seems to be lacking is help the process through a custom-made piece of equipment from New Zealand.
“We have frozen pollen,” Wall said. “We will put it in here and drive this under the vines. The machine blows the pollen up through the vines. It can be tough on allergies though.”
The entire operation is irrigated from two ponds. One of which is 37 acres and 40 feet deep but the most-needed time for water is during the winter to help with freeze protection during critical times of the vines’ growth.
“Most people have alarms set to 6 a.m., 7,” Wall said. “Mine is set to 35 degrees; that is when mine goes off. I then come out here and turn on the sprinklers when the temperature hits 34 degrees.”
Wall said the ice-making process on the vines puts heat into them which helps prevent damage and it’s something he has already had to do this year.
“We had to run it for 72 hours straight back in March,” Wall said.
Wall said golden kiwis grown in Reeltown will be good for the gap in the supply as the kiwis in New Zealand come off in the opposite season because they are grown in the southern hemisphere.
While the golden kiwi might be readily known on the other side of the world, guests enjoyed the tender, sweet fruit Wednesday in Reeltown including Garrett Heath a fifth-grade student from Slapout.
“It’s real good,” said Heath, licking his lips.