George Petkov under his Kiwi canopy in Abbotsford.
The mosquitoes are wicked at George Petkov’s leased farm in Abbotsford. As much as the blood-suckers are annoying, they’re no fools. This is a beautiful place to be on a hot summer day.
Beneath the eight acres of pergolas supporting planted kiwis, the mosquitoes enjoy the same mix of heat and moisture the plants thrive on.
“Here [in the Fraser Valley], July and August is excellent,” Petkov said. “It’s high humidity in the air. Kiwi like that.”
While the strategy of growing kiwis outside their usual production regions of New Zealand, Greece, Italy and Chile may seem flawed, Petkov started his paradise of Mediterranean fruit growth in 2008 and is seeing constant increases.
“I’m expecting 25 per cent more [volume] this year,” he said.
In 2013 he harvested 48 metric tonnes of fruit and is still not yet in full productio
It’s a far cry from one of the kiwi growers on Vancouver Island who, according to Petkov, deemed the fruit not commercially viable and ripped up 10 acres of plantings around 2007 or 2008. The Kiwifruit Growers Association of BC still exists on the southern tip of the island, the only place believed capable of growing the fruit in B.C., until Petkov came along.
Don’t go racing out to rip up the grapes or raspberries in favour of kiwifruit however. Petkov is the first one to tell you it’s not an easy crop despite the fact there are no substantial pests he’s come up against. It’s simply really hard work.
He approaches his business with a master’s degree in viticulture after prior years of schooling in the same subject matter from his homeland of the Republic of Macedonia, formerly Yugoslavia. Petkov feels his education is much more practical than what is available in North America.
Petkov was also the assistant viticulture manager with Domaine de Chaberton, worked with what is now Backyard Vineyards and still provides vineyard consulting to growers. The consulting however, is becoming a rare activity as Petkov no longer has the time.
He knows his vines.
“They grow like crazy,” Petkov said of the male vines. “I have to do lots of canopy management and pruning is very important.”
At one point in his viticulture employment, he saw a kiwifruit ripening on a plant and the idea took hold.
“I saw the opportunity,” noted Petkov. “I got the idea because I grew up with viticulture.”
While he doesn’t regret his choice of planting and establishing the kiwifruit, it came at a cost.
At first, he tried to find land in Langley, but couldn’t find enough suitable acreage. Then he came upon the lot in Abbotsford with its clean well water for irrigation and bare, subtly sloping fields.
“The first few years we were putting money, money, money [into the production],” he said.
Now, the biggest cost is his time.
“When you work for [your] self, I am more flexible,” Petkov says. “Sometimes, I can stay 12 hours [on the land], sometimes I don’t come.”
Petkov, his wife, daughter Sara and son Teodor live in Vancouver, so in the summer, when the kids are out of school, they join their dad at his business, Petkov Kiwi Production.
The work is demanding, but Petkov said finding educated labourers to help out is hard.
“If I expand more, I will have to find someone who knows about [kiwis], so if I expand I will do something else, other Mediterranean fruits, it’s [kiwis are] too much work,” he said.
Petkov feels the lack of local knowledge about a wide range of vine fruits comes from the focus on berries in the Lower Mainland.
“Education is in blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, that’s it, because that’s what grows here,” he said. “The rest [of the fruit varieties] are in the Okanagan.”
Kiwis can also be hard to pollinate, even with the eight to one ratio of female plants to male plants on Petkov’s operation. He also has six bee hives on the land.
“Harvest is the beginning of November, end of October, depending on the weather,” he noted. “Usually I leave them [on the vine] the maximum amount possible.”
Similar to bananas, kiwis ripen in storage and can stay in cold storage up to six months.
Approximately 75 per cent of Petkov’s prior harvests went to “the Healthy Schools program,” he noted, with the remaining quarter being sold wholesale to restaurants and IGA. This year Petkov is taking his Food Safe certification to allow him to expand his business.
“The first year it was a little hard to find buyers,” he said. “They didn’t believe kiwi could be grown here.”
Petkov has planted over 25 different kinds of fruits on the land including recently planted olives. For those unable to get to the Mediterranean, Petkov’s operation is one way to experience it, surprisingly, in the Fraser Valley.
- High in both soluble and insoluble fiber, both of which are essential for promoting heart health, regulating digestion, and lowering cholesterol levels.
- Kiwifruit’s fiber content (as high as many whole grain cereals!) contributes to its moderate to low glycemic index of 52, great for individuals suffering from diabetes.
- Rutgers University researchers found that kiwifruit has the best nutrient density of 21 commonly consumed fruits.
- Along with vitamin C, kiwifruit are rich in many bioactive compounds that have antioxidant capacity to help protect against free radicals, harmful by-products produced in the body.
- Kiwifruit is a great source of folic acid, magnesium, lutein and potassium.
- Kiwifruit has been growing in New Zealand for over 100 years. Once the fruit gained in popularity, other countries started to grow them including Italy, France, Chile, Japan, South Korea, Spain and now Canada.