British pear growers have been removing pear orchards at an alarming rate because they’ve not been profitable. Now, the East Malling Research Center in the United Kingdom is trying to demonstrate the feasibility of growing pears using modern systems.

It’s been reported that U.K. pear acreage dropped by 40 percent between 1997 and 2006 as growers removed unproductive orchards. At the same time, pear production in the Netherlands, across the English Channel, has been increasing, as growers plant new high-density pear orchards using techniques borrowed from apples.

Dutch growers have proven that it’s possible to have good production—say, 55 bins per acre—from a pear orchard in years three, four, and five, whereas U.K. pear orchards have typically yielded around 20 bins per acre, and not until years seven or eight, said Graham Caspell, farm manager at East Malling.

“We’re trying to prove that the Dutch intensive systems are going to yield substantially more than the traditional English system.”

Sainsbury’s, one of the major grocery chains in the United Kingdom, proposed the demonstration orchard because it would like to sell more U.K. fruit, Caspell said. The 12,500 tons of the pears produced annually in the United Kingdom make up only a small percentage of the total pears sold. This reliance on imports has led to ­concerns about the country’s food security.

The concept orchard, which was planted in 2009, includes four different growing systems. All the trees are Conference on the Quince C rootstock, which was developed at East Malling, and are planted three feet apart with 11.5 feet between rows. Verdi is the pollinizer. Caspell said it is not a scientific study, and the block will be managed as a commercial orchard would be, with an emphasis on the bottom line.

Production last year, in the second leaf, averaged 12 bins per acre for the whole block. This year, he expected to harvest 17 to 18 bins per acre, slightly less than he had hoped because of some frost damage.

The systems are:

English bush: This is similar to traditional English pear orchards, but with a closer spacing. The top trellis is seven feet high. The trees were root pruned on one side last spring using an angled blade. Last year, in the second leaf, this system outperformed the others.

Run through: This is a taller version of the standard English system, using “run through” trees from Verbeek Nursery in Holland (see “Rundown on run through”).  Trees are trained to a five-wire trellis with the top wire at 10.5 feet and supported by individual bamboo poles.

Quad V system: Each tree has four leaders, two trained to trellis wires on each side and supported with bamboo canes. This is the easiest to prune. All but the four branches are removed, and any branches on the leaders that grow to more than a third of the diameter of the leader are cut back to a stump to allow regrowth. The ­trellis is 10.5 feet tall.

Double head: Each tree has just two leaders trained to a V trellis. Caspell said he thought this would be the better system. Though it might not be the most productive, it should be the easiest to manage, and it lends itself to mechanical pruning, which the quad V does not.

All the trees and trellis wire came from the Netherlands and the concrete posts from Italy. Caspell said nursery trees with two or four leaders don’t cost any more than central leader trees.

Not easy

Caspell said it won’t be easy to convince the British growers who stopped growing pears because they weren’t making money on them to give it another try. “It’s going to take a lot to get them back into it,” he said.

English supermarkets, like Sainsbury’s, want to sell English-grown fruit, but for many consumers, price is more important, he said. “They don’t care if it’s English or from Outer Mongolia, as long as it’s cheap.”

Supermarkets might pay a premium of one or two pence a kilo for English fruit, he said, but the Dutch can produce better crops, and transport across the English Channel is not very expensive.

The concept orchard is a joint project of Sainsbury’s, the fruit marketer Chingford Fruit Limited, and East Malling Research. •