After about 82 years of cooperative fruit packing, Southern Oregon Sales in Medford will be up for sale after the season. - Bob Pennell

Hard times sink SOS

The end of an era is at hand.

Southern Oregon Sales, a pear growers cooperative that has operated in south Medford since 1926, will cease operation at the end of the current packing season.

SOS's 6-acre site, including a 110,000-square-foot production building and warehouse built in 1929, as well as an office and retail outlet on Stewart Avenue, is being offered for sale at $2.8 million.

"Whether it's kept in pear production or becomes something else remains to be seen," said Charlie Swingle, who heads the SOS board. "The problem is there just aren't enough members left."

Swingle said the decision to sell was made three or four months ago.

Southern Oregon Sales Inc. was organized in 1926 by Leonard and Alfred Carpenter, Gordon Voorhies, Chandler Egan and Corning Kenly. The packing house once served as many as 200 growers.

Today, there are fewer than a dozen. In the 1990s, SOS was packing out more than a half million boxes of pears annually. By last year, the number dropped to about 50,000 boxes.

That's a bitter pill for a third-generation grower like Swingle, who traces his family roots here to 1857, grew up working summers in the packing plant and took over the family farm more than three decades ago.

"There used to be a lot of family orchards," Swingle said. "They're nearly all gone. You can't grow pears if you can't make money. Our costs are up and my grandfather sold pears for not much less than we get."

As retail markets have consolidated, growers have found margins continually squeezed tighter and tighter. Some have found alternative markets, but not everyone.

"Small family farmers in general are all scrambling to find a niche or some way they can survive," Swingle said. "If you are trying to make it in the commodity market, the margins are just too slim. Right now it would be a lot easier to get into the pear business than to get out."

Growers near population centers can opt for U-pick, expand the varieties of fruit and vegetables they grow or sell to smaller independent markets.

"There were prophets of doom and gloom 30 or 40 years ago," recalled Swingle. "You could see the signs over the years. The environmental things meant using chemicals that cost a lot more and you had to use a lot more because they didn't last as long. People didn't want to buy orchards because they were afraid of the chemicals. People would buy houses next to orchards because it was so beautiful and then complain about the spray and smell."

Pear picking fell out of favor among local youngsters two generations ago and growers became dependent on migrant labor.

Two of the co-op's larger components, Reter Fruit and Crystal Springs, left the business earlier this decade. Others have turned to alternative marketing through Talent grower Ron Meyer.

The co-op's gift program has increased every year, building both local and outside clientele.

"By itself," Swingle said, "it's not enough to cover everything."

Four years ago, SOS turned to laser technology in hopes of developing new streams of income. Those efforts stalled, however, when Food and Drug Administration approval got mired in the courts.

"We got a lot of custom work orders for the holidays last year and we had to turn down the orders," Swingle said. "We had orders for pears and apples with hotel chain names on them and from large companies wanting their names on fruit at trade shows. You can use lasers for hair removal, eye surgery, you name it. But we can't get it approved. If we could have done the outside work, then we could have kept going."

Don Minear grew as many as 400 acres of pears along with his brother Bob between 1954 and when he exited the industry in 2000. He was SOS' fifth president and saw the co-op rebound during the last two decades of the 20th century.

"When I took over (as SOS president), the manager said if it gets down to 100,000 boxes, it's not going to pay to run it and you're going to have to sell it," Minear said. "That was in 1980. We started picking up growers and got it going good again. Last year, it was around 50,000. You can't run it with that little, there's too much overhead."

A financial summary on real estate broker CB Richard Ellis' Web site listed SOS' net operating income at $238,210.

"A couple of years before I quit we put 550,000 boxes through," Minear said. "The year I quit we had 428,000 boxes; it's gone downhill ever since. It is a sad day, I hate to see it. I hate to see it fold up."

Remaining orchardists may find it harder to find a place to pack pears next year with Associated Fruit and Naumes Inc. chief among the dwindling number of options.

Some orchardists work with Meyer, who markets pears independently and uses Naumes' facilities.

Swingle is in his 70s and looking to retire soon. His sons have successful careers in other arenas.

"If I can't find a home for my fruit, then trees will come out and the land will be up for sale," Swingle said. "I don't want to take them out, but one of the problems with an orchard is that you can't just put it on hold — it's a living, breathing thing. Either you push it out or take care of it. If you abandon it, then it will start growing bugs and disease, making it that much harder for the ones still in business."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

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