The Pacific Northwest pear industry is forecasting a 2006 crop of 17.5 million boxes, down from 18 million boxes a year ago.
At the annual pear meetings held in Portland, Oregon, on June 1, industry representatives compiled their first official 2006 crop estimates. The winter pear crop is forecast at 13.9 million boxes, down from 14.3 million boxes in 2005, and the summer/fall pear crop is likely to be 3.9 million boxes, close to the volume for 2005. Most of the reduction in winter pear production is in the Wenatchee district, whose crop could be down a million boxes from a year ago.
Dennis James, marketing director at the Pear Bureau Northwest, said the crop size is manageable as measured against consumer demand. In recent years, that’s been reflected in the higher prices that producers have been receiving for pears.
The season average f.o.b. price for all varieties and sizes up to May this year was $15.78 a box, compared with $12.20 per box during the 2000-2001 season, according to figures compiled by the Washington Growers Clearing House Association.
Five years ago, primary pear purchasers were women aged between 35 and 44, James reported. Today, people who buy pears cover the entire age spectrum, which means the purchasing base has expanded. The person who buys pears nowadays is more concerned about the appearance and ripeness of the fruit than about the price.
Meanwhile, the display space devoted to pears in the typical produce department has increased.
“Demand for Northwest pears is very strong in the domestic market,” James said. “The 2006-2007 season holds a lot of promise. Retailers are focusing on pear opportunities, and an increasing number of consumers are making pears part of their diets.”
Kevin Moffitt, Pear Bureau president, said the industry has come a long way in the past five years with its preripened or conditioned pear program. Major retailers are advertising ripe pears in their ads, and some are ripening pears in their own facilities.
“People can buy pears that are ready to eat in a day or two, meaning they’ll come back sooner to buy more,” Moffitt said.
The Pear Bureau has been emphasizing the health benefits of pears. Pharmacy bags extolling the benefits of pears as a low-calorie source of fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, are being used in a number of retail stores. Moffitt said he believes pears are the first produce item to be advertised on pharmacy bags, and it’s part of a strategy to reach consumers in unexpected ways.
In May, pears were featured in a Wall Street Journal article about unusual foods to grill. The Pear Bureau supplied a photo and recipe for grilled pears. “It’s not a common way to serve them,” noted Laura Wieking, former public relations manager. “It’s one of the ways we’re trying to get people to think outside the box.”
The bureau is developing new recipes with more ethnic flavors, and promoting pears through television cooking shows, which are particularly popular in overseas markets. Latin America has become the most important region for exports, while Europe has become less important in recent years. Though export volumes have stabilized, the value of exports has been increasing over the past few years because of higher pricing, reported Jeff Correa, international marketing director. The total value of pears exported during the 2005-2006 season was expected to reach $68 million.
Mexico is the number-one export market, although volumes have declined somewhat as prices have risen. It used to be a 3.2-million-box market, but is now topping out at 2.8 million, though at a higher value, Correa said. “We’re reaching the point where we’re maximizing value and volume.”
The Pear Bureau approved a proposed 2006-2007 export budget of $4.4 million, which includes $2.8 million in anticipated federal market access promotion funding. That amount is similar to the MAP funding the Pear Bureau received this year. The bureau also expects to receive $50,000 in federal funding to spend on ripening training programs in emerging markets in Southeast Asia.
Promotions will be conducted in 38 markets during the coming season, with the goal of shipping 5.6 million boxes of pears to Mexico and overseas.
“We’re trying to keep a balanced export program and not become too reliant on exports to Mexico,” Correa said. “We want to create as many opportunities as we can.”