Jan van Dijk uses

Jan van Dijk uses “run through” nursery trees, which are taller, calmer, and have more feathers than the traditional knip trees. He removes any strong upright shoots and laterals that don’t have fruit buds at the tips, and keeps only short feathers that will become fruiting spurs. Joe Nicholson of New York described the orchard as “pear heaven.”

Poor returns for apples in recent years have prompted Dutch fruit growers to pull out their apple orchards and replace them with pears. Twenty years ago, the Netherlands had 38,000 acres of apples and only 15,000 acres of pears. Now, it has more pears than apples.

But growers are not content to plant pears and wait several years to get back into production. They’re using the same techniques as in high-density apple production to create fruiting walls that crop the second year after planting and expect yields of 60 bins per acre when the trees mature.

“I was just blown away with the pear culture here,” commented Joe Nicholson of Geneva, New York, who joined the International Fruit Tree Association’s recent tour to England, the Netherlands, and Belgium. He was particularly impressed by a visit to Jacko Van Kessel’s orchard at Oud-Vossemeer, in the Netherlands, where farm manager Jan van Dijk was producing 30 bins per acre on ­second-leaf plantings and 80 bins per acre on mature blocks.

“That is pear heaven,” Nicholson commented. “And the fruit was lovely.”

The Nicholson family farm, Red Jacket Orchards, produces primarily apples, along with a few Ya Li and other varieties of Asian pears. He’d like to have more pears to sell at farmers’ markets during the winter, along with his apples and juices. However, there’s less incentive to plant pears in the United States, because American consumers do not prize pears as much as ­Europeans do.

“You have to be a brave soul to do the pear thing, just because it’s a secondary piece of fruit in the supermarket,” he said.

But he thinks that new varieties of pears with a different appearance could help create a renaissance.

Having seen the success of pear producers in Europe, Nicholson feels brave enough to make an investment in planting more pears—perhaps Conference or Forelle, or some of the new varieties emanating from breeding programs in North America.

Dwarfing rootstock

However, the first thing that’s needed is a hardy dwarfing rootstock, Nicholson observed. European growers use quince rootstocks—typically the dwarfing Quince C—which is not considered hardy enough for the fruit-growing regions of the United States.

“That’s going to kill you if you make a planting and it doesn’t survive,” Nicholson said. “First, we need a quince rootstock with winter hardiness, and then we have to put on promising varieties, and then put it in a system that will give us early production. If you could put them on a quince ­rootstock for precociousness, you all of a sudden have another ball game.”

Cold hardiness

Dr. Todd Einhorn, pear horticulturist with Oregon State University in Hood River, is studying the cold hardiness of a large number of accessions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Oregon and will test the most promising in field trials (see “Quinces evaluated for hardiness” on page 19).

A rootstock called Quince Eline, which is reputedly cold hardy, has been tested in Poland. Einhorn plans to include Bartlett and d’Anjou trees on Quince Eline rootstocks in a field trial in Oregon starting next year. Verbeek Nursery in Holland expects to begin selling trees on Quince Eline rootstocks in a few years’ time.

Dr. Terence Robinson, research horticulturist at Cornell University, New York, who was also on the IFTA tour, said a dwarfing rootstock is key to successful high-density pear systems.

He and colleague Steve Hoying planted some demonstration plots at Lake Ontario 15 years ago using the Quince A rootstock, and those trees have survived so far. He also included Swiss Bartlett on Quince A in a more recent systems trial at Geneva, but he has never tested Quince C.

In the systems trial, he tested the Pyrus rootstocks Old Home by Farmingdale 97, OHxF.87, Pyrodwarf, and Pyro 2-33, and Quince A with Bartlett, Bosc, and Taylor’s Gold. He compared four different training systems: central leader, vertical axis, tall spindle, and super spindle.

None of the combinations produced much fruit in the early years, but by the fourth leaf, trees on Pyro 2-33 and Old Home by Farmingdale rootstocks on the super spindle system (with trees on a 2- by 10-foot spacing) produced 60 bins per acre.

“We haven’t seen that kind of yield even on 50-year-old pear trees in New York,” he said.

“I think we can figure out how to manage even Pyrus rootstocks at high densities using the same ­techniques as apples, such as bending branches and root pruning,” Robinson said. “But I have to figure out how to get fruit in the second and third year.”

He believes a precocious quince rootstock is needed to ensure the early returns that make a new planting pencil out.

“I am really enthused that pears could be done better than we’re doing now,” he said. “I think the West Coast has a tremendous potential to modernize their pear industry both by changing their systems to get higher yields but also trying new varieties.”

Robinson noted that Conference, the predominant variety in Europe, has never been produced in the United States, and fireblight-tolerant or resistant varieties developed in North America, such as Harrow Crisp, Harrow Sweet, Sundown, Blake’s Pride, Potomac, and Magness, are ­available for growers to try.