Markets shrink for upscale pear
Is Comice a luxury people can no longer afford?
Comice is the perfect pear for gift boxes, but the gift business has declined.
Courtesy Pear Bureau Northwest
Comice is sometimes referred to as the Queen of Pears, because of its superlative eating quality. “It probably has the best flavor of the whole gamut of pears,” is the assessment of Ron Meyer, a pear grower at Talent near Medford, Oregon.
Trouble is, consumers no longer seem willing or able to pay the price for this venerable pear variety that costs more than other pear varieties to grow, Meyer says. And retailers aren’t always enthusiastic, either, because Comice is a tender variety that requires special handling.
He estimates that 60 percent of Medford’s Comice production has traditionally been sold in gift packages—many of them in the luxury gift baskets of Medford-based Harry and David. Comice is the perfect pear for that market because it requires at least 30 days of cold storage to reach its best eating quality and is at its prime at Christmas, he said.
But the gift business has fallen on hard times because of the recession. Harry and David is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and Medford’s Comice growers are wondering how they’re going to get a high enough return on their fruit to make it worthwhile producing them. Two years ago, there was a surplus, and some Comice pears were sold on consignment, Meyer said.
“When you run into that sort of competition, it’s devastating.”
Mike Naumes, president of the growing and packing operation Naumes, Inc., in Medford, said that over the years his company had had a contract to supply Harry and David with Comice pears but has been preparing for the day when Harry and David would not take as many. The company will have about 70,000 to 80,000 standard cartons of Comice to sell this year—about half the Medford district’s volume.
“We have some marketing plans in place to handle the additional amounts we will have to market,” he said. “One of the big problems with Comice is we get a certain amount of Fancy grade fruit, and that’s the one that’s really difficult to market.”
Naumes has been working to expand the distribution of its Comice pears to supermarket chains. Because it’s a fragile variety, the company is selling them in packages with overwraps, in clamshells, and in Eurotrays with individual socks, for example.
“We’re trying to do a lot of different things to improve the quality of the Comice on the stand,” he said.
But Meyer said that even in grocery stores, people shy away from Comice because of the higher price. “In this economy, where the shopper is more frugal, they seem to be reluctant to pay the difference between a d’Anjou and a Comice, so that’s hurt us. It’s too bad, because if someone tries a Comice pear—even people who don’t like pears—generally, they like them.
“There’s still a market,” he added, “and it would be a good market if we had our production balanced with the market, but right now, it’s been out of balance. We’ve had more Comice pears than we can sell to the clientele that will buy them at a reasonable price. There’s a good market for them in upscale markets, but that’s limited. It’s not mainstream for sure.”
Last year’s crop was relatively short because of frost damage, but this season, Pacific Northwest growers were expecting to harvest their largest Comice crop since 1994. The Medford district’s crop is estimated at more than 155,000 cartons, up from 88,000 last season. Although Medford produces only 6.5 percent of the Northwest’s total pear crop, this year it was expected to produce more than 50 percent of all the Comice pears.
Expensive to produce
There are several reasons why Comice is expensive to produce, says Meyer, who has 20 acres of Comice in his 220-acre pear orchard. First, the variety is naturally slow to come into production. He’s tried to overcome that by using the precocious Provence Quince rootstock at higher densities than traditional plantings.
But even mature Comice trees don’t yield as well as other varieties, and Meyer’s found that trees on Provence Quincy aren’t productive after about 20 years, whereas trees on seedling can continue profitably for many more years.
Bear Creek Orchards, which supplies pears for Harry and David, its parent company, has more than 1,500 acres of Comice pears and is by far the largest producer. It also has some Bosc, but no other pear varieties, according to Matt Borman, Bear Creek’s manager of horticulture and technology.
Borman said high-density Comice plantings tend to yield about 10 to 11 tons per acre, which is probably a third less than it is with typical production with other pear varieties. And, Comice has a delicate skin that can easily be blemished by russet or sun rash, so it requires more fungicide applications than other varieties, such as d’Anjou.
This year, Bear Creek removed some of its older Comice orchards that were not productive and has put the ground into cover crops in preparation for planting in the future. Borman said the company has no immediate replant plans.
Meyer said he doesn’t think the variety will disappear, but he’d like to see more done to promote it and increase consumption. However, since Comice accounts for less than 2 percent of the Northwest winter pear crop, the Pear Bureau Northwest is limited in the promotions it can do for that variety, he acknowledges.
Naumes said Comice accounts for about 10 percent of Naumes’s total pear volume, and the company will probably stay at that level. He doesn’t expect the Medford district’s production to go down much. “Really, a lot depends on what Harry and David does,” he said.