Most growers want new pears to add some excitement to an industry still producing classic varieties. But launch a breeding program right now? That’s a lot to ask from an industry beset by low prices, pest pressure and other challenges.
However, that’s exactly what some growers, officials and researchers propose. With the help of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, a group of backers has suggested using $650,000 of commission reserves to launch a pear cultivar breeding program to revive the pear industry.
“If we don’t do something now, my honest opinion is I think the pear industry is going to collapse,” said Phil Doornink, a Wapato, Washington, grower and proponent of funding a breeding program.
For now, supporters are asking growers to talk among themselves and then chime in.
The group hopes to gather enough feedback in time for a vote at the Pear Research Review on Feb. 20 in Yakima. The research commission manages scientific grants for the fresh and processed pear committees, which collectively support Washington and Oregon pears under a federal marketing order through assessments paid by growers from the two states. A research subcommittee, which evaluates projects and makes funding recommendations to the larger committees, plans to vote on the proposal at the research review.
Backers estimate the $650,000 “down payment” would fund about three years to get the breeding program started. After that, the growers from Washington and Oregon would have to pony up $200,000 per year to cover ongoing costs for at least 20 years. Then, if things go as planned, the university would commercially release a new variety, and the program would become self-funding.
Fruit breeding is a long game with no guarantees. WSU’s WA 38 apple — which just hit store shelves last month under the trade name Cosmic Crisp — is 20 years old. Consumers seem excited, judging from news coverage, but the industry still doesn’t know how well the gamble will pay off.
Pears might take even longer, said Kate Evans, WSU’s pome fruit breeder and likely leader of the proposed program. Maturity is tougher to determine in pears than in apples, making evaluations harder. Evans has experience in pear breeding from her work at the East Malling Research Station in England, before she started at WSU 11 years ago.
Evans is confident her team can develop new pear varieties that will grow well in Washington’s conditions, but she wants growers to honestly voice both their support and concerns.
“It shouldn’t be me leading this charge,” she said.
In fact, growers on the research commission board and other industry groups are championing the issue.
“This is something that the pear industry has needed for a long time,” said Doornink, a member of the marketing order’s research subcommittee.
For decades, pears were regarded as steady income for growers. However, one of their safety nets, the canning market, has slipped with changing consumer preferences and cheap Chinese imports. Young farmers are switching to cherries and apples, both of which have added new varieties to the game in recent years. New cultivars for the more lucrative fresh market might help growers stick with pears.
Doornink, 40, also is willing to be patient. A pear breeding program may not pay off during his career, but he has nephews who have expressed interest in farming. He would like pears to be an option for them.
“When I’m ready to retire, I hope they will be excited,” he said.
Growers also would need to determine the top traits they seek. Precocity, pest and disease resistance, and fruit quality — a pear that eats well and performs well in the postharvest supply chain — likely top the list, said Bob Gix, a recently retired horticulturist for Blue Star Growers in Cashmere, Washington.
For example, the Gem, a pear developed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s breeding program in Kearneysville, West Virginia, can be eaten crunchy right off the tree or ripened to a buttery texture. Gem had its first commercial harvest in 2019 by Diamond Fruit of Hood River, Oregon.
Proponents of the program have identified about 50 traits so far, said Ines Hanrahan, director of the research commission. If the breeding program is approved, that list would be winnowed down to five or six priorities.
Though pear growers face more immediate threats of psylla, fire blight and cork, Ray Schmitten of Blue Star Growers said he also supports the idea of investing in a long-term breeding program focused on scions for the Pacific Northwest. The new varieties coming out of New Zealand are good but may not fit our climate, he said. Meanwhile, Evans’ rootstock breeding work focuses on boosting efficiencies by allowing higher density plantings with dwarfing rootstocks, although they are looking at pest and disease resistance as well.
“That’s great, but the same thing goes for the cultivar,” Schmitten said.
Over the years, growers and packers have worked on their pear problems and have made progress, Gix said, but not enough. Psylla, postharvest deterioration and a difficult-to-ripen product all have bogged down the industry for his 40-year career, in spite of efforts in integrated pest management research, conditioning rooms and extension outreach.
“I firmly believe genetic improvement will offer the best opportunity to deliver on many of the challenges pear producers have faced and will continue to face,” Gix said. “The path will not be easy and will depend on younger growers stepping forward to lead this long-term project.” •
—by Ross Courtney