Hood River, Oregon
Peterson said the most pressing issue is the 20 percent tariff on U.S. pears, cherries, and apricots imposed by Mexico in March. Mexico imposed the tariff after the U.S. Congress voted to end a pilot program allowing some Mexican trucks to enter the United States, which was part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Mexico is by far the largest export market for U.S. pears. Figures from the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association show that Mexico took 1.8 million boxes of pears during the 2008-2009 season, down from 2.4 million the previous year.
While the tariff has affected some pear shippers more than others, depending on how reliant they are on exports to Mexico, the loss in sales impacts the industry as a whole, he said.
“Thank goodness we had a relatively short crop this year,” he added. “It didn’t affect us as greatly as it could have.”
However, with a larger crop likely to be harvested this fall, the issue is taking on greater importance, particularly as exports in general have been down because of the worldwide economic recession. “We need all of the export markets we can muster,” Peterson said.
Mark Powers, vice president at the Northwest Horticultural Council, said the council has been working with members of Congress and explaining how people are impacted by the tariffs. The council estimates that if the tariff remains in place through the end of the summer, tariffs on those three fruits will cost Pacific Northwest growers more than $6 million.
However, many people—including 1.2 million Teamsters Union members—are opposed to allowing Mexican trucks into the country. Powers said there is no timeline for resolving the issue and it could take until the fall. It is a very complicated political issue for the administration, and there is no clear way to move forward.
Presence at retail
The biggest issue facing the industry is to maintain the position of pears at retail in light of larger crops, more competition from other commodities, and the economic recession, Woodin believes.
Woodin, retiring chair of the Pear Bureau, said it’s important that the bureau continue to improve and evolve, just as the way pear growers do business evolves. The large marketers are selling pears with their apples, cherries, and soft fruits, and sometimes question the value of generic promotions, he said. The bureau is trying to become more user friendly and to interact more with marketing desks.
“I believe there’s a balance and a need for both,” he said. “I believe that building demand and educating the consumer is what the bureau’s all about. We’ve got to figure out how to mold the bureau into what the total industry needs.”
Lack of efficiency
Peters feels the biggest issue for the pear industry is a lack of production efficiency when compared with other crops such as apples. “We haven’t done anything at the field level to increase our production efficiencies,” he said, noting that most pears are still being produced on large, old trees. More efficient growing systems could help lower production costs.
Northwest pear production has been fairly flat over the past 15 years, as has per-capita consumption, Peters noted.
“If an industry isn’t growing, it’s dying. I think it’s very important that we be able to increase efficiencies, or we’re going to price ourselves out of the market. Can we keep up with inflation?”
Producers of other commodities are more efficient and will become more so, he said. They will be able to sell their product for less and be more profitable.
A limited labor supply and high labor costs will affect the pear industry more than others because pears are still grown on large trees, rather than pedestrian systems, Schmitten said. “I don’t see that changing in the next 20 years.” Earlier-ripening apple varieties have made it more difficult for pear growers to find pickers, he said. For example, Gala harvest typically begins between Bartlett and d’Anjou harvests, and workers find it easier to harvest from small apple trees than tall pear trees.
Compounding the problem is the fact that standard pear orchards are not well adapted to new technology or even platforms for carrying workers because the tree canopy is deep as well as tall and many pear orchards are planted on hills, Schmitten noted.