On the last Monday in October, as Hurricane Sandy lashed the North Carolina coast, 200 miles inland in Rougemont, the skies darkened, the treetops lurched and the annual kiwi harvest began.
Kiwis will tolerate a hard rain and an occasional wind gust, but they cannot stand the cold. Out here in the country at Four Leaf Farm, the forecast that evening called for 36 degrees, leaving a small window of time in which to pick the vines clean.
Helga and Tim MacAller crouched beneath a thick, vine-braided canopy of large-lobed leaves that were as soft as an ear. Scanning the boughs, Helga clutched a fuzzy brown fruit the size of a large hen's egg and as hard as a stone. Kiwis ripen off the vine; they are ready when, to a gentle touch, their skin barely gives, like a baby's fontanelle.
Helga placed the kiwis in small trays. "This is not a good year," she said.
Last year, the tree yielded 200 pounds—the best crop in the farm's history. Today, they would pick 35 pounds.
The ferocity of Hurricane Sandy is a bellwether of a changing global climate, but so was this year's prematurely warm spring that contributed to the MacAllers' paltry kiwi crop. The spate of balmy weather signaled the kiwi trees to produce buds, but it was followed by a late frost. Once burned, the buds are done for the year; they cannot make fruit. The trees eventually made a second set of buds, but there were far fewer of them.
Unlike other hardier species of kiwis, the fruit of the fuzzy kind—Actinidia deliciosa, the most commercially popular variety—also succumbs to the slightest frost. The contraction and expansion of water inside the kiwi damages the tissues and cells of its emerald green flesh.
"The fruit doesn't look like it's hurt," Helga said, "but you cut it open and it's pithy, like a sponge."
Helga, who comes from a farming family in Denmark, and Tim, a Southern Californian with a botany degree, started Four Leaf Farm in 1980. After taking a hiatus to raise their children, they restarted their farm—a half acre on a two-acre tract—in 2001. In addition to traditional crops such as greens, herbs and vegetables, the MacAllers also dabble in recalcitrant plants. They can coax rhubarb out of the ground and persuade lemon trees to bear fruit in pots. Only their olive tree has yet to produce.
"We think of it as a pet," Helga said.
North Carolina is not known for its kiwis. It was on a lark 25 years ago that the MacAllers planted the starts of two kiwi trees—a male and a female—in what could be considered an arranged marriage via the Stark Brothers seed catalog. The couple took root near a shed, which protected them from north winds, yet they received ample sun. Nonetheless, it took four years for the female to mature and bear fruit. The male and female must bloom at the same time, and since her flowers produce no nectar, honeybees pass her by, and she must be pollinated by insects or the breeze.
Over time, the MacAllers erected simple steel trellises to support the vines, the beginning and end of which are now impossible to trace. The two trees seem to be one.
"We don't know who's who," Helga said, admiring their sturdy trunks.
In December and January, Tim prunes the vines, stripping them of their shoots so the trees are easier to manage. By March, vines begin to regrow; in April, fat, furry buds appear. The buds turn into white flowers with yellow stamens. In May, the leaves come on, and all summer the kiwis grow, until October, when it's time to pick them.
The MacAllers don't irrigate or spray the trees, although Tim occasionally tosses a bucket of compost at the base of the trunks.
"We don't pay much attention to them," he said.
After just 20 minutes, the harvest was nearly complete. There won't be enough kiwis to supply local restaurants as they have done in the past—Panciuto in Hillsborough and Lantern in Chapel Hill are among their biggest customers—but the MacAllers could sell a few at the Durham Farmers' Market in early December.
Tim studied the vines for stragglers. "Oh look, an orphan," he said.
In rubber boots, he balanced on a concrete block and stretched to the top of a bough to grab the final kiwi.
"It's like when you take ornaments off the Christmas tree and find that last one," Helga said.
The wind picked up. Clouds the color of gun-metal pelted the farm with a cold spittle of rain. Tim and Helga retreated into their house for a cup of tea. Here's to next year.
This article appeared in print with the headline "So fragile, so sweet."