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Pear breeder Richard Bell (right) and horticulturist Ralph Scorza are pictured in 1999 while researching the effects of dwarfing genes on the growth of Bosc pears.

Pear breeder Richard Bell (right) and horticulturist Ralph Scorza are pictured in 1999 while researching the effects of dwarfing genes on the growth of Bosc pears.

The West Coast pear industry is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to move its pear breeding and genetics program from West Virginia to Washington State, to be closer to where most of the country’s commercial pears are produced.

The request, which is being pursued by the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, has the support of the Pear Bureau Northwest and the California Pear Advisory Board.

Washington, Oregon, and California produce 97 percent of the country’s pears, USDA statistics show. Washington has 26,000 acres of pear orchard, and Oregon and California each have 17,000 acres.

The pear breeding program is located at the USDA’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia. Dr. Dariusz Swietlik, who until recently was director of the station and is now ARS associate director for the North Atlantic area, said the USDA has agreed to the move in principle, but funding issues still need to be resolved.

Dwarf trees

Chuck Peters of Yakima, Washington, a member of the Research Commission’s pear advisory committee, said commission members have discussed the possibility for several years, but the idea has been gaining momentum in recent months.

There would be three areas of emphasis, Peters said. The first would be to develop dwarfing and precocious rootstocks for pears. As farm labor becomes scarcer, it will be difficult to find workers willing to climb 10- or 12-foot ladders to harvest pears from full-sized trees, he said. With dwarfing rootstocks and smaller trees, growers could develop orchards where fruit could be harvested mechanically or by people from the ground.

The second focus would be to increase orchard productivity, he said. “In pears, we’ve not had the ability to take advantage of dwarfing, precocious rootstocks as we have in apples. We’ve had no real significant gains in orchard productivity.”

A third area would be the development of new or improved varieties. Per capita consumption of pears has been relatively flat, Peters said, and the industry is interested in new pear varieties that might create more consumer excitement.

It’s not yet known to where the program might move. Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission, said it could be located at any one of the Agricultural Research Service’s three laboratories in Washington, at Wenatchee, Yakima, or Prosser. It would be up to the ARS to determine where the best place would be.

The Research Commission would like to see the expansion of resources in genetics and breeding programs for rosaceous crops in the Pacific Northwest, and the relocation of the program is a logical step, as long as it doesn’t diminish the research capabilities of the Kearneysville station, McFerson added.

The commission is hoping that the program can be moved soon. “Every year we delay means we’re delaying the innovation and programs that a good genetics and breeding program can bring,” McFerson said.

Dr. Richard Bell, research horticulturist in charge of the Kearneysville breeding program, said the USDA has been involved in pear breeding since the early part of the twentieth century.

Although the initial objective was to provide fireblight-resistant varieties for the eastern United States, it has always been felt that such varieties would be equally useful in the West, Bell said.

New York is the most significant pear-producing state in the East, with 1,400 acres of pear orchard, followed by Pennsylvania with 900 acres, and Michigan with 850 acres, USDA statistics show.

Since 1908

The pear breeding program started out in 1908 at a farm in Arlington, Virginia (now a parking lot outside the Pentagon). The USDA also had researchers working on pear breeding in South Haven, Michigan, where some early hybrids were developed.

In 1938, the pear breeding program was shifted from Arlington to Beltsville, Maryland. In 1960, three fireblight-resistant varieties were released: Magness, Moonglow, and Dawn. Magness is in commercial production, Moonglow turned out to be mostly a backyard variety, and Dawn proved to be not so resistant to fireblight, Bell said.

The program moved to Kearneysville when the station opened in 1979. Bell became the breeder the following year. From 1967 to the mid-1980s, the USDA had a cooperative breeding program at Ohio State University, which led to three more releases. Potomac, which is highly resistant to fireblight, was released in 1993. Black’s Pride, also highly resistant to fireblight and with a flavor and aroma similar to Comice, was released in 1998. The late-maturing Shenandoah, which has fireblight resistance similar to Seckel, was released in 2002.

Bell said he received permission this spring to release an early-maturing variety called Sunrise, which ripens in early August in West Virginia.

The unnamed US 71655-014, which is moderately resistant to fireblight and has good fruit quality and storability, might also be released soon. It has been tested in cooperation with Oregon State University in Hood River and with Washington State University in Mount Vernon.

As well as breeding new fireblight-resistant varieties, Bell has been working on developing pear cultivars that are resistant to pear psylla. He is also looking at the potential of growth-regulating genes to produce dwarfed pear trees, either as the scion or the rootstock.

Bell said that he’s not opposed to the breeding program being moved to the Pacific Northwest.