Vines imported from Italy and Greece were planted on one hectare in a secret location in the county last May. They are already growing at a substantial rate, which could mean the first fruit will be commercially evaluated in two years.
The project is an initiative of fruit marketing organisation Worldwide Fruit (WFL), which is owned by both the Fruition Producer Organisation (FPO) and Turners & Growers (T&G), one of New Zealand's largest exporters of fresh produce.
WFL's current core businesses include the sale of apples, pears, avocados, dates and UK stone fruit to a range of retailers. The FPO said it hoped the kiwi crop will eventually provide new opportunities for its grower members, while WFL said it hoped to provide its customers with a unique import substitute that can help reduce food miles.
Plans for the trial began in 2008 when WFL used the expertise of New Zealand-based kiwi fruit growers with more than 50 years of cultural experience and a selection of the most suitable varieties. WFL technical director Tony Harding said: "This project is another example of our close international co-operative joint ventures.
"Working jointly on the project with one of our shareholders T&G has enabled us to source exclusive T&G varieties to offer a unique point of difference.
"The UK project is a small part of the overall T&G Kiwi global development plan in which we are delighted to be involved. WFL will have sole marketing rights to sell these new exciting varieties in the UK."
Some 1,200 green Hayward vines were planted and, as is common practice on the other side of the world, they are being trailed on wires strung across solid concrete supports.
Next year WFL is planning to plant some yellow-fleshed kiwis, which are becoming increasingly popular with consumers. It also plans to introduce some red- fleshed varieties.
Fruit development technologist Caroline Ashdown has been impressed with the way the new vines are performing. She said: "Obviously it is a new experience for us but we are confident it will be successful in some degree as we get to understand the vines' physiology. They need good pollination, but do not suffer from mildew or canker like other deciduous fruit.
"The site has also been carefully chosen to provide good drainage because the vines don't like to get their feet wet. And while they can withstand several degrees of frost, it is also sheltered."
Kiwi vines grow so fast that as they mature their growth can be measured almost daily. As a re- sult, following the practice throughout the world, harvesting is expected to take place in October. A further advantage is that kiwis store well and can be kept for up to six months without significant quality issues. Harding added: "It's early days, but we are excited by the prospects of producing a commercial viable UK-grown kiwi fruit crop."