After years of research and personal expenditure, kiwifruit farmer Li Xiaoyang might just have given Chinese growers an edge over their foreign counterparts, Li Yingxue reports.
By rubbing his thumb a few times on the surface of a kiwifruit, Li Xiaoyang can tell its sugar content, just from the sound it makes.
From Li's father to his 27-year-old son, for over four decades, three generations of his family have been devoted to cultivating kiwifruit in Shaanxi province.
Most customers often store kiwifruit for a week or so before they can eat them. Some will place the kiwifruit in a vented plastic bag with an apple or banana to hasten ripening.
Li's goal, however, is to bring kiwifruit to his customers delicious and ready-to-eat, meaning they won't have to wait too long to get their fix of the anti-oxidant-filled fruit, and growers can cultivate a higher income.
After 11 years of his research and experimentation, 2020 finally saw him achieve just that. When his ready-to-eat kiwifruit was put up for sale on Alibaba's grocery-retail chain, Freshippo, in October, daily sales of the fuzzy-skinned fruit grew exponentially throughout the month.
"We want the whole country to know about our delicious ready-to-eat kiwifruits and, one day, we hope to sell our products overseas," Li says.
Left with a gooseberry
In Li's mind, there are three challenges that the kiwifruit industry in China is facing－compared with their New Zealand counterparts, the Chinese fruit is not as sweet, therefore foreign brands tend to dominate the market and the kiwifruit farmers don't make much money.
Kiwifruit, native to China, is also known as the Chinese gooseberry. It was introduced to New Zealand in 1904 by school principal Isabel Fraser, when she planted seeds that she had collected during her travels.
According to Julia Morton's book, Fruits of Warm Climates, published in 1987, New Zealand growers began calling it "kiwifruit" in 1962 and the name was quickly and widely accepted. It was commercially adopted as the trade name for the fruit in 1974.
According to a report published by analysts at Research and Markets in February, in 2018, at 2.3 million metric tons, China accounted for the largest volume of kiwifruit consumption, around 51 percent of the global total. China also accounts for half of the world's total production of kiwifruit with a volume of 2.1 million tons.
From 2007 to 2018, the average annual growth rate of China's production volume exceeded 6 percent.
On the other hand, New Zealand with 417,000 tons was the biggest exporter of kiwifruit in 2018, resulting in nearly 29 percent of the world's total exports and, in value terms, New Zealand remains the largest kiwifruit supplier worldwide, comprising 42 percent of global exports worth $1.2 billion.
A report on the development of China's kiwifruit industry, published in September by the national kiwifruit industry innovation alliance, shows that, as of the end of 2019, there were 309,000 hectares of kiwifruit fields in China, and that Shaanxi is the country's largest producer in terms of scale, accounting for around 40 percent of the nation's total growing capability.
The report states that the need for high quality kiwifruit is increasing, while also pointing out that there are still problems in the industry, such as handling techniques and standards post-harvest and a lack of innovation.
According to Li, the total combined income of as many as 75 Chinese kiwifruit growers is equal to that of just one of their New Zealand counterparts.
Li's father was an apple-growing technician, and, in the 1980s, was given the task of cultivating wild kiwifruit into a viable crop.
"My father needed to gather and plant different varieties of wild kiwifruit and observe them for a long time to see which could be cultivated," Li recalls, adding that they had 3.3 hectares of kiwifruit fields.
"It took my father a few years to find the right variety and he taught me how to plant kiwifruit when I was 16 years old," Li says.
Li remembers that his father had good kiwifruit cultivation skills, and that other growers would come from all over the country to learn from him.
"I want the customers to be able to eat our kiwifruit right away, like it's possible to do with many other fruits, such as apples," he says.
According to Li, fruits like avocado and banana also need to ripen after harvest. "If one can master the best post-harvest ripening technique for a specific fruit, it can bring high returns," he says.
In 2009, Li started to study the post-harvest ripening techniques for kiwifruit and has, so far, conducted more than 2,000 experiments. Li says the first seven years were particularly difficult for him, when almost all experiments failed. After that, he started to make progress, but a breakthrough finally came last year.
Li says the breakthrough is based on his previous failed experiments. His techniques have improved, little by little, each year.
The harvest season runs from September to November, and is the only time in which Li can conduct his ripening experiments.
"There are only a few months in a year that the experiments can be carried out and, if I fail, I have to wait for another year," Li says.
Li's family used to sell kiwifruit for a living. After he started the research, most of their product has been used for his experiments, and he sometimes even has to buy in produce from other growers.
One experiment used over 1 ton of kiwifruit, and when he got some good results, he needed 10 to 50 times more in order to verify the result.
Over the years, his family has made a lot money by growing kiwifruit. However, Li has spent over 10 million yuan ($1.55 million) to fund his research, and sometimes, he even has to borrow money from friends.
After adding new equipment in a piecemeal fashion over the past decade, Li now has two 800-square-meter laboratories.
Li says that kiwifruit is incredibly sensitive to external scents, so people who drink, smoke or wear perfume are not allowed in the laboratories, and according to Li, the early morning and midnight are the best times for his research.
Finally, in May, Li and his team were satisfied with the flavor of their ready-to-eat kiwifruit.
According to Li, when the kiwifruit is harvested, it may contain up to 15 percent sugar. As the starch continues to convert to sugar after they are picked, by the time his ready-to-eat kiwifruit arrives on shelves, it contains around 18 percent sugar.
Wang Wei, senior purchasing specialist at Alibaba, met Li earlier last year.
According to Wang, the high-end and middle-level market in China is almost monopolized by Zespri, a kiwifruit brand from New Zealand, and there is a lack of competitive local brands for kiwifruit.
"For us, the key to ready-to-eat kiwifruit is the shelf-life. Li Xiaoyang's fruit has a long shelf-life, which is a highlight of the product," Wang says.
A tasting team, comprised of 37 staff members from Alibaba and Freshippo, was formed to try Li's kiwifruit before the product was put into the market. Their team is confident about Li's product because during a blind tasting, his fruits tasted the best.
The ready-to-eat kiwifruit was put up for sale on Freshippo in October and it soon became a popular choice for customers.
Li says the COVID-19 pandemic has had some good influence on sales of the fruit, as people are more aware of their health and kiwifruit is known for being rich in vitamin C.
Li has set high standards for each step of production of his ready-to-eat kiwifruit, including cultivating, harvesting, storage, quality control, classification and shipment.
According to Li, at the planting step, each kiwifruit must be exposed to sunshine for at least 1,100 hours per year. The time between picking and entering cold storage must be no longer than six hours.
"From the blossom of the kiwi flower to picking the fruit, for the late maturity variety, it should take at least 160 days," he says.
Li is continuing his research and development and he thinks there are more improvements to be made.
According to Wang, Alibaba is planning on collaborating with more growers next year to collaborate with Li on his techniques and standards to cultivate ready-to-eat kiwifruit.
Wang says digital agriculture will set a higher standard for the whole process of growing produce.
"There was a saying that agriculture depends on the weather," he says. "It does not. We want to be the bridge that links the best products with customers and also advanced agricultural technology with the farmers."