Most fresh pears nowadays are still grown on old trees in long-established orchards.

But if, through research, the Pacific Northwest pear industry were able to start growing pears more efficiently in intensive orchards with trees on dwarfing rootstocks, would there be a market for all the additional fruit?

“We’re limited now to where we grow pears and limited to the rootstock that we have,” Pat Burnett, a pear grower in Washington’s Wenatchee Valley, remarked during the Pear Bureau Northwest’s annual meeting last summer.

“Most of our pear growers are raising pears on trees that are 40 years old. What happens when we double our production?” he asked the Pear Bureau’s regional managers. “Is there a place out there for many more pears, or are we going to drive people out of business?”

The Pacific Northwest pear industry was expecting to harvest 19.2 million boxes of fresh pears this season, which is 5 percent over the five-year average.

Kevin Moffitt, Pear Bureau president, said the bureau is working hard to increase awareness and consumption of pears around the world, but it will be a gradual process.

Ripe pears

Dennis Kihlstadius, the Pear Bureau’s ripening consultant, said per-capita pear consumption in the United States is well below the levels in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, and he believes that more displays of ripe pears in retail stores would prompt people to eat more pears. Consumers don’t want to take pears home and wait four or five days for them to ripen, and if they get pears that don’t ripen at all, they will not go back to buy more.

And, he said, the industry hasn’t even scratched the surface in terms of the foodservice market. If each restaurant offered a salad with a pear in it, that would boost consumption dramatically. The limiting factor, however, is that chefs want ripe pears to work with.

Bob Koehler, the Pear Bureau’s regional manager for the Northeast United States and Canada, said the top retail chains are far from maximizing their pear sales and felt that better displays could help. According to the Pear Bureau, the top 35 retailers do 80 percent of the business.

“If we could get 15 of them to do what they can really do on pears, or even sell another box per store per week, you would be selling all the pears you’ve got and the import people would be trying to bring in more,” he said. “Maybe I’m being an optimist, but there’s room for improvement on any of the varieties. The only one that’s even close to being maxed out is Bartlett.”

Tim Corkill, regional manager for the West and Southwest, said the Pear Bureau shares category management data with retailers to show them how their pear sales compare with the overall market or with what their competitors are doing. This helps motivate them to adopt strategies to increase sales. The industry, along with the Pear Bureau, will have to continue to push, recreate, repackage, and reenergize the pear category, he said. Retailers need to be persuaded to devote more ad space and display space to pears.

Jeff Correa, director of export promotions, said the industry faces the same problem in both domestic and export markets: Many retailers don’t display pears prominently. The Pear Bureau tries to convince them that since pears are an impulse item, they should not be hidden where consumers can’t see them.

Sliced pears

Corkill said the country is on the cusp of big social changes that will affect dietary habits. As baby boomers age, they are likely to shift to more healthy diets, and pears fit right into that.

Children love pears, too, but the current packaging is not user friendly for schools, he added. “If we could offer something like sliced apples, that would be a wonderful marketing opportunity.”

Moffitt said many people have explored the idea of fresh-sliced pears, but several problems have arisen. The pears don’t ripen consistently—there can be a variation of five or six pounds of pressure among the pears in a box.  And, apple-slicing machinery is not designed to handle fruit that don’t roll, such as pears. Also, yields tend to be low because of the neck of the pear.

“I think a lot of people are interested, but we are still a ways away,” he said.

Koehler said new types of packaging, such as club-store packs, bags, and trays, might help boost sales. Retailers are looking for a quick sale and a bigger ring (meaning they want to sell customers larger quantities at a time), with less labor involved. These types of packages, which the industry is already using for apples, will help get more pears on display and sold in different ways, he suggested.

A grower asked the regional managers if lower retail prices for pears tend to result in increased movement.

Koehler said most U.S. retailers look at pears as a profit item, not a loss leader, and are reluctant to lower the price much.

Walter Johanson, regional manager in the Southeast, said some retailers will run a pear promotion at 99 cents a pound, but then put the price back up to $1.89, and the shoppers who bought them on sale get sticker shock and are turned off. He said he’d like to see shippers offer a two- or three-week lid price so that retailers could offer in-store specials and keep the price down to stimulate more repeat sales.

The regional managers estimated that the retail margin on pears is anywhere from 35 to 80 percent. Produce managers are being pressured to hit certain sales targets and look for items they can raise the price on.

“The margins are ridiculous, they really are,” Koehler said. “It’s not just pears that are getting picked on. Other items are ridiculous, too.”

Kihlstadius said he thinks retailers charge high prices for ripened pears because they expect more shrink. The Pear Bureau is preparing a study this fall to show that’s not necessarily so.

He also thinks that new varieties will play a role in increasing pear sales down the road.

Ed Chambers, regional manager for the Midwest, said he felt optimistic about the outlook. “I can only see positive growth for pears,” he said. “I think that the day will come when people will know their pear varieties as well as their apple varieties.”