The conversation among Pacific Northwest fruit growers tends to focus on the fresh market, where returns are generally more favorable. A very small percentage of apples and cherries are sold for processing—usually the lesser grade fruit. Pears are the exception. Winter pear marketing is consistent with apples and cherries, but Bartlett pears are sold primarily for processing.
A significant market for canned pears was established during the mid 1900s when canning provided the best way to preserve fruit for consumption during the winter and spring months. Canned pears, peaches, apples, cherries, and mixed fruits developed as staples for the pantry in American homes.
Developments in fruit storage technology, along with international transportation, have changed the marketing programs, providing fresh apples, cherries, peaches, and pears year round. However, processing continues as the primary sales outlet for Bartlett pears. Although the fresh Bartlett volume is growing slowly, 63 percent of the Pacific Coast’s 2008 Bartlett crop was processed.
After many years with volume around 500,000 tons, the Pacific Coast crop is trending downward toward 400,000 tons. The major source of this reduction is California, where growers have shifted their acreage to other crops that generate higher returns or have developed their land for other uses.
Prior to 1989, 60 percent of the Bartlett tonnage was grown in California. At that time, the five-year average for California started to decline. In 2008, the five-year average showed that 55 percent of the Bartlett crop was grown in the Northwest (Washington and Oregon), and the California share was down to 45 percent. The crop estimate for 2009 indicates that the Northwest share of the volume will continue to increase.
Most of the tonnage reduction has come from the processed market. Sales of canned fruit continue at a lower rate each year. The big three canned-fruit items—pears, peaches, and mixed fruits—serve a smaller retail market. Fortunately, the foodservice business has been increasing as more people eat away from home.
The foodservice market growth has slowed the overall decline of canned fruit sales, but presents a very price-competitive alternative to supermarket sales. Private-label sales are predominant in this sector, which is the major focus of four of the Northwest pear processors. Since there is less brand identity for the foodservice customer, imports have taken a significant share of the canned peach and canned pear markets.
Will the trend toward the fresh market replace the decreasing demand for processed pears? Two key issues will influence the outcome.
The first is shelf life. Apples and winter pears adapt well to the controlled-atmosphere storage regimes that have developed in the last 30-plus years, providing a marketing period that stretches to 10 or 12 months. But so far, Bartletts have not held up very well in long-term storage. The annual marketing cycle starts in July for California and in mid-August for the Northwest. Analysis of the most recent crops (2005–2008) shows that 92 percent of the fresh Northwest Bartletts are shipped by the end of December each year, and 99 percent by the end of January.
The second issue is returns for the grower. Producing a profitable Bartlett pear for the fresh market demands large size and a clean appearance. This requires more thinning, pruning, and care in picking, and, thus, higher growing costs. As more volume goes into the fresh market, the challenge for the marketers is to promptly sell the crop without reducing prices. As long as there is a significant processing volume, a pricing floor exists for the fresh sales.
The trend shows that Pacific Coast processing volume is decreasing primarily in California, and fresh volume is increasing slowly (see “Pacific Coast Bartletts”). The test for the marketers will be to successfully sell the fresh volume at returns that give growers a net increase in profits after they cover their additional growing costs. We should expect that it will take several years for the market to absorb larger volumes of fresh Bartletts at prices that will justify the extra costs. Those who work primarily in processing want to see more Northwest fresh Bartletts sold at excellent prices.