Rich Warner, left, and Kenny Trower of Best Signs put the finishing touches on truck trailers that will carry Southern Oregon Sales produce and other goods. The 93-year-old company will continue doing business, desperately needed by small-acreage pear orchardists, after being purchased by Cross Creek Trading Co. owner Mike DeSimone. - Jim Craven

Pear orchards' SOS answered by ... SOS

Mike DeSimone of Cross Creek Trading Co. in Central Point has acquired Southern Oregon Sales in south Medford, providing a desperately needed facility for small-acreage pear orchardists.

DeSimone said pear-packing operations will continue at the 90-year-old plant that had been run by the 93-year-old Southern Oregon Sales co-operative.

A $2.3 million agreement was signed Friday and the deal is expected to close in late June.

"We want to rescue pear growers and diversify into all kinds of Rogue Valley agriculture," DeSimone said. "Our background is bringing local farmers to market, whether on the trucking side, or now the SOS packing plant."

DeSimone has been in the agriculture and transportation business since 1981 when DeSimone Farms was launched by his family. In 1989, the distribution business was sold to Fresh Express and the business was renamed Cross Creek Trucking Inc. and Cross Creek Trading Co. The trucking firm distributes agricultural products throughout the West and in a variety of eastern points as well.

"There just weren't enough small pear growers to keep the co-op going and have a facility sitting idle for so much of the year," said Charlie Swingle, chairman of the SOS board. "By Cross Creek buying it and putting the companies together it will keep the facility operating the whole year around. Basically, this has become a produce-distribution center and not just a pear-packing facility."

While keeping the Southern Oregon Sales name and history alive, DeSimone also sees an opportunity to capitalize on the familiar SOS logo and will institute the Southern Oregon Select brand.

He has purchased additional trucks to help promote the line.

DeSimone said he hoped to close a deal earlier, but had to wait while the SOS membership worked out details. The delay meant some growers already had committed to sending their crops elsewhere this fall.

In a few weeks, the cold-storage unit will crank up and several local wineries, pressed for space, will use the facility for storage.

In the not-distant future, DeSimone hopes to develop salsa and barbecue sauce as well as a pear pancake syrup.

DeSimone said Diana Doran will stay on as general manager, a position she has held since 2003. Cross Creek General Manager Scott Fowler will oversee both operations. Terry Helfrich, a former orchard manager and fruit buyer for Harry & David, will serve as a liaison and consultant to local growers. Lloyd DeSimone, Mike's uncle, who has worked for Quality Market and Ray's Food Place, will handle consumer produce sales.

DeSimone wants to reduce risks for growers, allowing more time to grow fruits or vegetables.

He hopes to develop a custom-farming operation that owns or leases several hundred acres so in time it can become vertically integrated, from putting crops in the ground to shipping.

"There are pears grown all over," DeSimone said. "But let's try to resurrect the Rogue Valley stamp, the quality is there and let's try to build on it."

DeSimone said he plans to continue pear sales both on the Web and through mail-order lists, but SOS no longer will offer gift baskets.

"I don't believe you can beat Harry & David gifts and I want to promote them," he said. "They have supported me for 30 years and I'm not going to disrespect them by dabbling around in the gift business."

Helfrich said the economic and environmental conditions that created an emphasis on more local and sustainable businesses have made it a good time for such an effort.

"Instead of pushing down orchards," Helfrich said. "This adds to sustainability and food security."

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

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