Pacific Northwest canned pear processors will start the 2006 season with a low inventory and a below-average volume of Bartlett pears to process.

The volume of pears going to the processed market has been on a downward trend for five years, Jay Grandy, manager of the Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association, reported during annual pear industry meetings this summer. The Northwest’s 2005 processed pear crop of 139,000 tons was the smallest since 1996 when pear production was affected by a freeze. Toward the end of the 2005-2006 season, inventory was so short that some processors were buying canned pears from other processors to supply their regular customers, Grandy said.

The region’s 2006 processed Bartlett crop is estimated at about 140,000 tons, which is below the five-year average. Another 5,000 tons from California could come to the Northwest for processing.

While the volume of processed pears is declining, sales prices for canned pears have been going up, Grandy said. The higher prices are reflected in a U.S. Department of Agriculture purchase of more than 375,000 cases of canned pears announced in June.

The purchase was the first of two awards that the USDA normally makes for the school lunch program each summer. The prices bid were almost 13 percent higher than last year’s July pear purchase, Grandy said.

“This certainly confirms the general industry feedback that canned pear pricing for processors has been much stronger this year than in previous years,” Grandy added.

The USDA has been taking between 10 and 12 percent of canned pear sales in recent years.

Last season, 63 percent of the Northwest’s total Bartlett crop was processed. About 77 percent of the Northwest’s processed pears are produced in Washington State’s Yakima district (with 17 percent coming from the Mid-Columbia area) and small volumes from the Wenatchee area, and from Oregon’s Medford and Willamette areas.

California’s Bartlett pear production has been gradually declining for a long time, Grandy said. Its 2006 processed crop is estimated at somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 tons, compared with 164,000 tons produced in 2005. Last season, the volume shipped to the Northwest for processing was very small, at 3,000 tons, compared with closer to 30,000 to 40,000 tons in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Snokist Growers in Yakima, Washington, processed large volumes of California pears.

Grandy expects that with inventories at low levels, Northwest processors will pack slightly more pears this season—perhaps 8 million cases, up from 6.7 million last year—which will give them a total of 10 million cases available to sell this year.