California pears

(Courtesy of California Pear Advisory Board)

It’s not been a banner year for California tree fruit. Cherry yields were disappointing, hail damaged some stone fruit, and growers are coping with an epic drought. But the pear crop is a bright spot.

“Fortunately, we do have a pear crop,” said Patrick Archibeque, chief executive officer of Rivermaid Trading Company in Lodi, California, the largest pear growing and packing operation in the state and a major cherry grower and packer.

Rivermaid Trading, formerly called All State Packers, is owned by Brian Machado and Chiles Wilson. The two were childhood friends who ended up working together after college at the All State packing house in Lodi. In 1993, they bought out owners of the company and renamed it Rivermaid Trading in 2011 as a tribute to the Rivermaid label. Today, the company handles pears, cherries, and soft fruit, and has a related gift fruit business

“We have a nice, full crop of Bartlett pears, and fruit is very clean,” Archibeque said. “And the Starkrimson crop is big, but Bosc will be significantly reduced this year.” Rivermaid Trading packs around ten different pear varieties.

California’s total pear production has averaged around 190,000 tons, with an average of 3.9 million boxes (36 pounds) shipped to the fresh market annually for the past four years, according to the California Pear Advisory Board. Pear harvest traditionally begins around late July or the first of August but started a week or so early this year.

The Bartlett crop was estimated at 2.6 million boxes this year, down slightly from the four-year average of 2.9 million packages, according to the Pear Advisory Board. Bosc (including Golden Russet Bosc) will be down some this year, too, in part due to weather, but mostly because of the recent exit of major pear grower Naumes, Inc.  that’s sending shock waves through the industry.

At the end of last year, Naumes, which is based in Medford, Oregon, sold nearly 1,500 acres of its northern California acreage comprising pears, cherries, and other tree fruit. About 1,000 acres of the Naumes property were pears. The new owner has already removed the pear trees for replacement with other crops.

“The California Bosc market has been shocked by the removal of the Naumes acreage,” Archibeque said.

From 2010 to 2013, California growers produced an annual average of 11,120 tons of Bosc varieties, according to Pear Board data, and Naumes produced about 40 percent of that tonnage, or around 5,000 tons. In addition, Archibeque said, the Bosc crop is down significantly from the lack of winter chilling hours. Many of the fruit were in clusters on the tree instead of more evenly spaced out in twos or threes, he said, and size will be impacted.

“Bosc is one that didn’t come through the winter good, but other varieties like Comice and our Rivermaid Red variety have full crops.”

Fresh versus processed

California’s pear industry is still somewhat cannery dependent. Canners demand about 100,000 tons annually, Archibeque said, which is more than half of the total Bartlett production, which came in at 170,000 tons last year. However, the cannery picture is vastly different than a decade or so ago, and growers are in a much better position these days.

The decline in canned food sales resulted in consolidation of canners and unprofitable prices for growers. In response, California growers shifted more Bartletts to the fresh market, removed acreage, and replanted with more attractive crops like wine grapes, cherries, and nuts.

Canners began offering more lucrative prices to growers a few years ago to slow what was a growing shift away from processed pears, said Archibeque, who is a director of the California Pear Advisory Board. Some grower prices were higher than $300 per ton, but this year’s negotiated cannery price could reach around $350 per ton, he said.

“The high prices are needed to provide a price that allows growers justification to keep their acreage in Bartletts and not look to alternative crops,” he said. “In the early district of Mendocino and Lake counties, especially Mendocino, wine grapes have been an attractive crop for pear growers.”

With the 5,000 tons of Bartletts gone from the Naumes acreage, the supply side has clearly shrunk, he said. Initial reports of the Bartlett crop showed average numbers of fruits per tree, but there are some drought concerns in Mendocino County.

“For those that use surface water from the Russian River in Mendocino County, there’s a question of total tonnage due to the drought,” said Archibeque. “Those with wells can access groundwater. Lake County growers have wells and sense that they will be okay.”

That market channel that pays more will get more of the fruit, he said, adding that the canners will likely get the tonnage they need, but they’ll have to pay for it. “Last year, canners paid well, but the fresh market also returned well to the growers. In many cases, fresh market prices were beating the contracted cannery prices.”

Pear growing practices in California changed more than a decade ago when there was oversupply and canners wouldn’t take all the fruit. “Growers had no choice but to go to the fresh market, and they’ve been managing their crop for the fresh market ever since,” Archibeque said. “Growers here produce a very clean crop.”

Pear volume

Rivermaid Trading packs almost 2 million boxes of pears annually. They pack about 1.5 million boxes of Bartletts, and 400,000 to 500,000 boxes of Bosc. Red varieties, like their Rivermaid Red, and specialty varieties, like Seckel, total around 100,000 boxes.

Pear exports have strengthened in recent years. Rivermaid Trading sends fruit to India, Brazil, Colombia, and other Central and Latin American countries. Archibeque credits the use of SmartFresh (1-methylcyclopropene) on Bartletts for opening the door to exports.

“Bartletts don’t like the variance in temperatures that you can have in ocean containers,” he said. “Even if you handle containers well and do everything perfect, you still see a three- to five-degree variance in transit. But SmartFresh evens things out.”

Rivermaid Trading was a cooperator in postharvest trials led by University of California’s Dr. Beth Mitcham. “We learned an awful lot about techniques to make SmartFresh work on pears,” Archibeque said.
For example, the fruit must be exposed to ethylene at the receiving end. In Brazil, receivers utilize banana rooms to gas pears with ethylene.

“Pears in California are profitable for growers right now, and acreage is stable,” he concluded. With the exception of the Naumes orchards, there’s no longer widespread removal of acreage, and grower returns are in excess of $300 per ton for Bartletts and significantly higher for other varieties. •