The canned pear world is in the midst of change. With more than a decade of declining Bartlett pear production, a shrinking number of pear processors, and declining consumption by consumers, the outlook for Bartlett pear producers is “fuzzy” says a manager of a Northwest pear growers bargaining association.
There was a time when Bartlett pears were in their glory—processors numbered nearly 25 just in the Pacific Northwest, total West Coast Bartlett production consistently averaged more than 500,000 tons annually, and yearly canned pear usage was around 10 million cases. But today, the future is uncertain.
Jay Grandy, manager of Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association, the bargaining arm that negotiates grower prices with pear processors, gave a snapshot of the not-so-robust canned pear situation during the association’s annual meeting in Yakima, Washington, this spring.
A review of canned pear production history shows a gradual increase in volume from the late 1960s until a crash in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a number of West Coast canners dropped out of the pear business, going from 11 to 7, Grandy said. “That happened when there were enormous inventory carryovers, coming off some big production years.”
It took about a decade for the seven remaining processors to get back up to the annual tonnage levels of around 400,000 tons of Northwest pears that had occurred before the processor contraction, he said. But since the mid-1990s, processed volume of Bartletts in the Northwest has been in decline, fluctuating between 150,000 to 125,000 tons, with another 18,000 to 25,000 tons processed in California. There are now only three pear processors remaining in the Northwest.
Grandy said that whether growers can be profitable producing pears for processing is a function of how many tons per acre they can grow. Some of the older orchards in the Yakima Valley that no longer yield well have been pulled out in the last decade. Growers who have orchards producing 20 to 25 tons per acre are probably managing to make a profit. Those with lower yields are struggling to make money unless their orchards and their equipment are debt free. It’s unlikely, he said, that growers would replant Bartlett orchards specifically for processing.
The volume of Bartletts sent to the fresh market has slowly increased through the years, although 80 percent of the Bartletts in the Yakima district still go to processors. Today, around 150,000 tons of Washington and Oregon pears are sent to the fresh market, he reported.
Another shift that has taken place is the switching of places between the Northwest and California for the most Bartlett production. “Up until around 1995, California grew more Bartletts than the Northwest,” he said. “But since the early 2000s, the Northwest has grown more.”
Grandy noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its school lunch and other programs, continues to be the canned pear industry’s largest customer, but total domestic consumption has been slipping the last 15 years. “There was a time when consumption ran around nine to ten million cases a year. Now, it’s more around 7 million cases, compared to 1970 when domestic consumption averaged 10 million cases.” Retail sales continue to slip and are averaging around 1.6 million cases annually.
Imports of canned and small containers of pears do impact domestic sales. Significant pear imports began coming into the United States from China and South Africa in 2000, he said, adding that China is the biggest exporter and has been sending around 1 to 1.2 million cases to the United States for the last six years. “It looks like China imports are here to stay,” Grandy said.