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Originally published Monday, May 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Italy leads world as top producer of kiwis

As the name suggests, green fields stretch in every direction here in Campoverde. But where grapes once dominated, kiwi is the new king...

Los Angeles Times

CAMPOVERDE, Italy — As the name suggests, green fields stretch in every direction here in Campoverde. But where grapes once dominated, kiwi is the new king.

You don't think "kiwi" when you think Italy. In fact, two of the letters that spell the word don't even exist in the Italian alphabet.

However, Italy has grown to become the world's largest producer of the odd furry fruit, according to the National Institute of Agricultural Economics, surpassing even New Zealand, which coined the name.

More than 400,000 tons of kiwi are produced annually, reviving the economy in sections of Italy that people otherwise might have abandoned for the city.

A kiwi plant, it turns out, adapts fairly easily to the infrastructure used for grapes. It is planted along the same configuration of long, furrowed rows. The thin trunk is latched to a post, and its branches spread laterally to form a canopy, just like the grape vine.

About 80 percent of Italy's kiwis are exported, the bulk to Europe and 15 percent going to the United States. Italy sends kiwis at roughly the opposite end of the calendar as other big producers such as New Zealand, providing the U.S. a virtual year-round supply.

Although kiwis need a lot more water than grapes, the green, tart fruit can earn three times the profit that grapes bring in, says Gianni Cosmi, a farmer in Italy's central Latina province.

The fruit thrives in central Italy because of the climate, with its relatively mild winters and warm-but-not-scorching summers, and because of the soil, mineral-rich from the area's many volcanoes.

Thirty years ago, Renato Campoli was one of the first Italians to plant the fruit. "I was looking for something new to do in agriculture," Campoli said. The tomatoes, beets and cows raised on his little family farm in Latina didn't yield much of a living.

"I didn't know a thing about it, not how to cultivate it, water it, prune it," Campoli, 57, recalled. That first year, he was on the verge of destroying his several hundred boxes of kiwi because, traveling the length and breadth of Italy, he couldn't find a buyer. Finally, a co-op near Lake Bolsena agreed to take the fruit.

Slowly, Campoli built what he assumed would be a niche market. But, over time, business took off as the fruit's popularity grew and Italy positioned itself to fill in the southern hemisphere's production gaps.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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