Gooseberry's fall from flavour: Kiwi fruit is passe. Michael Fathers on the vine that became a victim of its own success

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The Independent Online
THE NEW Zealand farmers who gave you that decorative addition to nouvelle cuisine - the kiwi fruit - are going bust. A crisis conference in Auckland this week is to consider a plan to uproot the vines that 10 years ago turned many poor dairy farmers into millionaires. Today they are seeking welfare support and jamming free helplines for advice.

It was slick marketing that changed a furry green gooseberry, which orginated in China and grew wild in many North Island suburban gardens, into glamour food, first in California and then around the world.

But as fashion changed, the exclusive became twee and cheaper producers in California, Chile, Italy and France using root-stock imported from New Zealand flooded Europe and North America, sending prices tumbling. The New Zealanders could no longer compete.

A farming leader, Paul Heywood, told the French news agency, AFP, that New Zealand had made a mistake in exporting rootstock during the mid-1980s when it cornered the market. Banning the export of root-stock might not have halted competition, but it would have taken longer.

Last season farmers earned pounds 1.38 for every tray of kiwi fruit they produced, barely covering their costs. (The average farmer needs to produce about 40,000 trays to cover his costs and make a living.) A year earlier, through their centralised selling system, farmers were earning pounds 1.90 a tray. The Kiwi fruit Marketing Board has told farmers they will be lucky to get pounds 1.26 a tray, well down on the fruit's peak of around pounds 3 a tray in 1987.

To give you some idea of the volume, the board estimates that there are 130 million trays on the world market. With roughly 24 fruit in each tray that gives you more than three billion kiwi fruit sloshing around out there and accusations of dumping and underhand trading are rife.

'We were expecting bad news, but this is devastating,' said Rex Reid, president of the Auckland Kiwi fruit Growers Association. One of the first kiwi fruit farmers, Peter Hansen of Clevedon, said that from now on it would be the survival of the fittest, or the wisest - 'and the wisest would pull out his vines'. Mr Hansen farms 20 acres of kiwi fruit, a large holding.

As with most of its agricultural products, New Zealand has fallen foul of less efficient and subsidised producers in other parts of the world. France, for example, has threatened to retaliate against New Zealand's other exports if New Zealand kiwi fruit remains on sale in Britain and other EC countries from 1 November when French and Italian kiwi fruit reach the market.

But all may not be lost. For ever innovative, New Zealand's agricultural scientists are secretly working on a hybrid, which first reports suggest is green and hairless with pink spotted flesh. And that's not a joke.