Editor’s note: An update to this story was posted online after our August publication deadline. See: Neil Jones makes price offer for canning pears

One of the Northwest’s largest pear growers plans to pull many of its canning Bartletts, now that two processors have drastically changed how they purchase fruit.

If nothing about the beleaguered canning pear industry changes, Mount Adams Fruit of Yakima, Washington, will remove roughly 25 percent of its canning pear trees each year, company President Don Gibson said.

“If you’re growing cannery pears, you need to stop,” Gibson said.

More growers probably have similar plans, said Adam McCarthy, manager and owner of McCarthy Family Farm in Hood River, Oregon. “Next year is going to be the year you’re going to see some orchards coming out,” he said.

Two of the Northwest’s three pear processing companies have made market-altering changes this year.

In April, Seneca Foods announced it would close its Sunnyside, Washington, plant after the 2019 harvest.

Then, in early June, the Neil Jones Food Co., of Vancouver, Washington, turned down a price offer of $335 per ton offered by the Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association, a Yakima, Washington-based organization that negotiates a collective processing price on behalf of roughly 350 Bartlett pear growers. Historically, the organization reaches a deal with the region’s largest canner, Del Monte Foods in Yakima, while Neil Jones and Seneca follow suit.

Mount Adams Fruit, which is not a member of the Canning Pear Association, has typically sold pears to Seneca, but this year reached an individual price agreement with Neil Jones for “less than last year,” Gibson said. He declined to specify a price. The company used to own the Sunnyside processor but sold it to Seneca in 2013 in reaction to many of the same market forces in play today, he said.

The industry has seen prices dropping for years as consumer tastes switch from canned to fresh goods overall, and Chinese imports — even after recent tariff increases — have flooded the market with canned pears at prices below the cost of domestic production.

If Seneca and Neil Jones don’t buy pears at their usual volume, nearly half the region’s canning pears will be at risk, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Canning Pear Association. “There’s going to be some fruit out there that is not going to have a home.”

In 2018, Del Monte canned 55,000 tons of Bartletts, Neil Jones 28,000 tons and Seneca 17,000.

Matt Jones, CEO of Neil Jones, and Tim Benjamin, chief financial officer of Seneca, have not returned phone messages or emails from Good Fruit Grower asking what volume the companies plan to process this year.

This year’s timing makes things worse, Thurlby said. Had growers learned of the processors’ decisions during the winter, they may have pruned, thinned or planned differently.

McCarthy hopes growers use the $335 per ton price from Del Monte as a floor if they negotiate individually with Neil Jones, he said.

The contraction of the canned pear market has driven more fruit to the fresh pack industry, said McCarthy, also chair of the Canning Pear Association. Last year, for the first time, growers delivered more Bartletts to packers for the fresh market than to canners.

But, prices were also pressed downward there last year, he said. “The fresh market is pretty well strapped and had a challenging year last year.” •

—by Ross Courtney