It is fuzz-covered and brown, like the flightless, hairy New Zealand bird for which it was named, and alongside a crisp red apple or a plump orange, a kiwi fruit is an unlovely thing to behold.

But after years of neglect in America, a group of California farmers is gambling that the time is ripe for the kiwi fruit, which already enjoys preeminent status in Germany and Japan.

The kiwi got a little status in the United States recently, at least in the regulatory sense, when the Department of Agriculture's Marketing Service announced that it would develop grading standards for the burgeoning kiwi crop.

Kiwi vine cultivation has increased by more than 3,600 percent in the last six years, according to Paul Lessig, president of the California Kiwi Fruit Growers Commission. Lessig said 120 tons were grown in California in 1975. This year the figure is expected to be between 4,400 and 6,300 tons.

More than 700 growers now cultivate the fruit on lots that average just five to seven acres, and gross sales are expected to approach $50 million this year. But more than 80 percent of the crop is exported to Japan and Western Europe.

If the farmers have it their way, the kiwi may become to the plebian strawberry what the exotic croissant is to the ordinary dinner roll: more refined and a lot more expensive.

Despite its high price--one kiwi fruit about the size of a lime retails for from 49 to 89 cents--there are indications that the kiwi is gaining emotional, if not gastronomical, popularity here. Farmers can't keep up with the demand.

"The joke in the beginning was that a housewife picked it up and didn't know whether to eat it or to stomp on it because it was so ugly," says George Tanimoto, a past president of the Kiwi Fruit Growers of California. "But it has a beautiful pattern on the inside."

Adds Lessig, "We call it the fruit cocktail that comes in a plain, brown wrapper."

To help counteract the kiwi's unappetizing appearance, the growers commission is preparing to launch a small but spirited $250,000 national advertising campaign.

"It's not an ad campaign in the classic sense," said Lessig. "We're leaning very heavily on attacking the consumer at the point of sale with a very aggressive, in-store retail campaign."

Display cards and recipe books will form the heart of the effort, he added. Shoppers in Washington, Baltimore, New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and five other cities will be the initial targets.

Growers say the kiwi has many fine attributes. It ripens slowly and needs minimal refrigeration, which could nearly eliminate waste for retailers. It contains twice the amount of vitamin C by weight that an orange does. And it has an appealing taste that is a cross between a strawberry and a pineapple.

But they say it won't be getting cheaper any time soon. "It's a status fruit now," said Lessig. "The 49-cent-to-89-cent price makes it one of the exotic fruits like the papaya and guava. There won't be enough production for a while to back off that price at all."

Tanimoto said one of the problems with kiwi is that it is difficult and expensive to grow.

But the long-term payoff can be substantial. Lessig said cultivation is slow for the first three years. But after six or seven years, farmers can produce 1,600 to 1,900 pounds per acre. Since growers believe the wholesale price will not fall below $1.50 a pound, the profit potential is high.

"Now all the farmers have to do is win over skeptical American shoppers," said Lessig. "I'm convinced kiwi fruit is going to be the nectarine of the '80s."