Pear production in the Rogue River Valley is smaller than it once was, but the region is the number one producer of the Comice variety. Click for large image. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)
The pear industry of Oregon’s Rogue River Valley, after weathering several years of downsizing, is now in a stable position. And there’s optimism for the future.
Medford produces a sliver of the Pacific Northwest pear production and in 2012 represented 4 percent of the Oregon and Washington fresh pear tonnage, according to the Pear Bureau Northwest. Last year, Medford produced around 895,000 boxes out of the nearly 22.2 million total.
Medford is strong in certain varieties, such as Comice, said Kevin Moffitt, president of the Milwaukie, Oregon-based Pear Bureau. “They produced about 45 percent of the Northwest-grown Comice for the commercial fresh market in 2012, about a quarter of the Seckel crop, and 100 percent of the small production of specialty red pears.”
Moffitt added that the region’s growers are very active in pear industry committees, and several Medford growers are past chairs of the Pear Bureau board. The current chair, Laura Naumes, is from Medford.
“They’ve been very supportive of Pear Bureau activities over the years as a district. Research is very important to them. The Pear Bureau is an organization that works with a voluntary board, and we welcome their participation,” Moffitt said.
In Medford’s pear heyday, there were up to 12,000 acres of pears grown, some 400 growers, and almost 30 packing houses. Surrounding Jackson County was the fourth leading pear-producing county in the nation and the number-one winter pear producer. Today, the pear industry has declined to about 6,000 acres, a dozen or so growers, and only one commercial packing house plus mail order fruit company Harry and David, which sells the equivalent of 200,000 to 300,000 boxes of pears, mostly in gift baskets. The region annually produces between 800,000 and 1 million boxes of pears.
“We’re basically the last commercial packing house,” said Mike Naumes, president and CEO of Naumes, Inc. Naumes is a major player in the Rogue Valley’s pear industry and also has tree fruit acreage in Washington and California.
Medford’s advantage over other pear-growing regions is climate, Naumes said. It’s a warmer site than locations further north, such as Oregon’s Hood River or Washington’s Wenatchee Valley, but the nights are cooler than those in California’s pear districts. “We get better sugars in our fruit, and Comice grows really well here,” he said.
At one time, growers in Medford had an advantage in growing Bosc, a variety that is naturally russeted. That advantage has lessened as better russeting varieties, like the Golden Russet Bosc, have become available. The area is the major producer of Comice, a cultivar often referred to as the Queen of Pears because of its superlative eating qualities.
“Comice is probably the best-eating pear there is,” said Laura Naumes, vice president of Naumes, Inc. “But it’s very delicate, with a tender skin, and it’s very hard to handle. That’s probably one of the reasons that the variety hasn’t been more popular with consumers.”
The famous mail order company Harry and David, started by Medford orchardists Harry and David Holmes in the 1930s, is built on a proprietary Comice variety called Royal Riviera. The company, with more than 1,600 acres, has a huge impact on the region’s pear industry and even influences the grading of pears. Although the company is vertically integrated, Harry and David purchases a small amount of Comice and other fruit from outside growers.
Medford growers face many of the same challenges as other pear growers—labor, water availability, pest issues, and fireblight—but they also have issues unique to their region.
The early 2000s were tough years for pear growers, particularly those in Medford. “The pear market wasn’t very good, and it put a lot of strain on everybody,” said Laura, adding that the strain was felt for many years. The decade was marked by retail consolidation, high fuel costs impacting transportation, pressure on Medford agriculture from residential development, and a national recession.
To top all that, a bad spring frost in 2010 reduced Medford’s pear crop.
The region’s remoteness is a big challenge. “Transportation has been a difficult issue, and a lot of our area’s struggle has been related to our remoteness,” Laura said. “We used to sell truckloads of pears, but now it’s partial loads of several pallets and apples and pears. There’s no longer apple production here, and that’s sometimes a problem.”
Medford, situated along the I-5 corridor in southwestern Oregon, is four and six hours from Portland and San Francisco, respectively. But, more importantly, the region is five hours from major tree fruit producing regions in California and Oregon.
Research center threatened
In recent months, Medford’s agricultural industry has been challenged by the county’s elimination of funding for extension services, a move that impacts OSU’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Medford. The research center, a Jackson County-OSU partnership for more than 100 years, faces closure in 2014 if lost revenue (25 percent of the budget) is not secured.
The agricultural industry and friends of extension are working to create a countywide Extension Service District that would raise funds specifically for extension. The service district initiative will be on the May 2014 county ballot.
The pear industry is showing small signs of rebound. Eastern Oregon hay grower Sam Dinszale recently got into pears, buying some 300 acres of orchards from long-time grower-packer Associated Fruit. Harry and David’s orchard division Bear Creek Orchards, Inc., is preparing to plant a new 50-acre block of pears, and Naumes is looking to plant more pears and wine grapes.
Packing and marketing alliances also have been established with others. Several growers send their fruit to Stadelman Fruit and Diamond Fruit for packing in Hood River, and some growers have developed marketing alliances with Rivermaid Trading Company in Lodi, California.
Other positive signs include consolidation of pear sales agents, which has helped stabilize the market, and the pear acreage remaining is more productive than orchards of days past. Medford’s pear industry, though smaller than its heydays, is well positioned for the future.
Look for other stories about Medford pears, including Harry and David’s pear operation, in future issues of Good Fruit Grower. •
Melissa Hansen is the research program director for the Washington Wine Commission. Hansen previously was an associate editor at Good Fruit Grower from 1996 through 2015. Read her stories: Author Index