Growing the new Taylor’s Gold pear has been an emotional roller coaster for Geoff Thornton, and the ride’s not over yet.
"It’s the variety from hell," says Thornton, who has 300 acres of orchard in Tonasket, Washington, including 20 acres of –Taylor’s Gold.
Thornton first heard about Taylor’s Gold in 1989 when his father, Dell, visited New Zealand and returned with glowing reports. A russeted sport of the old French variety Comice, it was discovered in an orchard near Nelson in New Zealand.
Thornton contacted a nursery in Washington State and said when they had Taylor’s Gold to sell, he wanted to be the first to plant it. In 1998, he planted 100 trees. In 2001, he planted another 3,400, and in 2002 he planted 4,000 more.
At the time, he had high hopes. He planted them on low ground that was not good for apples, because of russeting problems, but produced excellent russeted Bosc pears.
Though the variety does have a few good attributes, such as its superb eating quality, his experiences in growing it have been less positive.
The first downer was finding that the trees, which are all on Old Home by Farmingdale 87 rootstocks, did not want to grow. Thornton said he’d often heard the saying "growing pears for your heirs," but never understood it before, because his Bartletts and Bosc came into production quickly.
Although the Taylor’s Gold trees bloom profusely, fruit set is poor, but Thornton doesn’t think lack of pollinizers is the problem because he has numerous pear varieties in his orchard. With red d’Anjou, trees nearest the pollinizers tend to have better fruit set than trees further away, but with Taylor’s Gold, there is no difference.
In 2003, after much coaxing, his trees started to produce fruit, and Thornton realized that the fruit were not going to russet well. He used the same russet treatment he uses to russet his Bosc pears, but to no avail.
The following year, he pollinated the trees by –helicopter to improve fruit set, and he intensified the russet treatment with an organic material. But the leaves proved to be extremely sensitive, he said. "I unintentionally shocked the living –daylights out of those trees and they dropped all their fruit."
The next year, 2005, he decided not to try to russet the fruit and focus first on the challenge of getting the trees to set fruit. Another problem he discovered was that after fruit set, much of the fruit drops off when it’s about thumb size, usually in late May.
At harvest, he had 13 bins of fruit. Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee agreed to market them and was excited to have something in its portfolio that other warehouses couldn’t offer to their retail customers, –Thornton recalled. Jeff Bouilloun, a small organic grower and packer in Oroville, hand packed the fruit. Even though the russet was variable—full russet, half russet, and splotchy russet—the packs looked beautiful, he said, and Stemilt returned him $800 a bin.
Thornton was now super high on the variety, and felt he could justify investing a lot of time and money in tree training to improve production.
In 2006, he harvested 67 bins from his 20 acres of Taylor’s Gold. His marketer had a customer lined up, but when the retailer received the fruit, the pears were less russeted than those in the sample box, and they rejected the shipment. By the time the salespeople found another buyer, in late February or early March, the fruit was beginning to decay. "It was a disaster," Thornton said.
This year, he thought of a new strategy: grow them organically. Even if he couldn’t produce large volumes of fruit, he could perhaps get high prices. Consumers of organic foods don’t mind how much they pay for something that tastes good, he reasoned, and he thought they’d –appreciate that the fruit was produced on a family farm.
His marketer thought it would be a slam dunk, russet or no russet.
Actually, it’s been a steep learning curve. Thornton decided to farm another 52 acres of his orchard organically, in addition to the Taylor’s Gold. But he was warned not to use Azadirect, the backbone of the organic pear psylla management program, on Taylor’s Gold because it might defoliate the trees. He’s had to go back to conventional controls on 12 acres of the Taylor’s Gold where the pest pressure was too high to maintain control with the other organic products available. In addition, fruit drop was worse than ever this year.
At the bottom
Though at the bottom of the roller coaster again, Thornton said he’s not about to give up. "I’m still pushing forward on this, with part of it conventional and part of it organic, and meanwhile I’m thinking about what would I graft them over to."
Then he thinks about all the money he spent on tree training and vows to continue.
"I love growing fruit, so I take it as a personal challenge," he said. "It doesn’t make economic sense to do all this, and most guys have just grafted them over and gone on, but being one of the oldest growers in the deal, I’ve got so much invested in this, I want to win on this. It’s going to be very, very hard to do, but I haven’t given up."
Thornton said he’s had rave reviews about the eating quality of the pears, and Taylor’s Gold suffer less wind damage on the tree and survives the packing and distribution system much better than standard Comice because of its thicker skin. And the russet seems to improve as the trees mature.
If he could just achieve 20 bins per acre every year at $500 a bin he could be successful, he believes, particularly as it seems that everyone else who had the variety has grafted them over. He’d have no competition.
His strategy for the coming year will be to try to keep the tree in balance with their roots. He’ll prune heavily in the winter so there’s less bloom on the tree and a good fruit-to-leaf ratio.
Already, Thornton figures he’s devoted 50 percent more time to his Taylor’s Gold blocks than his other pear varieties.
"I thought it would be a great diversity," he reflected. "And it has been a diversity, but not a great one."