Doug Lowry, vice president of operations for Associated Fruit, walks past a group of Stark Crimson pears at Sunny Cliff Orchard in Phoenix Tuesday. Pear harvest typically begins in mid-August. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Fruit growers expect solid crops

With the Rogue Valley's pear harvest looming around the corner, Associated Fruit sales operations manager Scott Martinez has been on the road quite a bit lately.

It's Martinez's job to find buyers for the Phoenix-based pear grower's crop, which should be about 16,000 tons of fruit this year. That's meant long trips to the east coast and shorter ones to California, while he keeps track of the fortunes of other fruit growers to the north and south.

In 2008, Associated Fruit picked 17,000 tons on more than 1,700 acres. This year's harvest comes from just 1,350 acres.

"The drop in acreage is significant," Martinez said, "but production hasn't dropped that much because there are so many more trees coming on" in orchards that have been replanted over the past few years.

At first glance, Martinez's task might seem easier this year, with fewer pears to sell. But a variety of factors have complicated the market, including a 20 percent Mexican tariff.

"The tariff is affecting our industry because Mexico is our largest export market," Martinez said. "We need to export about 35 percent of our crop and that (tariff) has slowed down exports and forced more pears onto the domestic market."

The domestic market has slowed too, he said, primarily because pears have to compete against other produce and food staples for the shrinking consumer dollar.

"The biggest issue is how people spend their discretionary dollars in the grocery store," he said. "With fewer available dollars, all the items in stores are more competitive with each other. It puts (downward) pressure not just on pears, but all produce."

Martinez said 80 percent of Associated Fruit's harvest goes to markets east of Chicago, with the remaining 20 percent sold in Southern California.

"On a per-pound basis," he said, "New England is paying more than other areas."

If pears are selling for 79 cents per pound in California, Martinez said, "A good price back there would be $1.49 or $1.59."

Although pears dramatically outshine other fruit crops in the Rogue Valley, the tonnage doesn't come close to the volume harvested in the Hood River district.

"We've been working on increasing partnerships with people out of Washington," Martinez said. "They have all the power because they grow cherries, apples and stone fruit. They're able to provide produce for 12 months, while a long shipping season for Medford is seven months, and then we lose touch with our customers for a while."

Over the decades, that has whittled down the Rogue Valley district.

"Hood River and north of there grows enough pears to supply the country and world without Medford," Martinez said. "I think we have a better pear, but it boils down to business relationships — who you know and who you don't know. That's why we had 12 packers years ago and we're down to three or four, counting Bear Creek."

Associated Fruit has gained ground on Medford-based Naumes Inc., which has pared down its California, Oregon and Washington pear holdings in recent years. It will begin harvesting red pear varieties the first week in August and then begin major Bartlett picking around Aug. 12.

Bear Creek Orchards, the Harry & David fruit-growing unit, historically begins harvest of its Royal Riviera comice pears on Aug. 26. Keith Emerson, director of orchard production, said this year's harvest on the company's 1,700 acres will begin around Aug. 28-30.

The crop is lighter this year, primarily because of shorter April bloom period, Emerson said.

"We saw enough buds, but the bloom period only lasted five days, was complete and gone," he said. "The advantage is that not a lot of pears were pollinated on the first day of bloom, and then some two weeks later. The maturity is consistent and we won't have a lot of small green pears when we start to pick."

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

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