The Fresh Pear Committee, which met June 1 in Wenatchee, Washington, voted to retain the per-box assessment on fresh pears. (Kate Prengaman/Good Fruit Grower)
The Fresh Pear Committee, which met June 1 in Wenatchee, Washington, voted to retain the per-box assessment on fresh pears. (Kate Prengaman/Good Fruit Grower)

When the Northwest pear industry met in late May, leaders grappled with how best to spend grower assessments amid ongoing export challenges and flat domestic demand.

The Pear Bureau Northwest promotes the region’s pears in domestic and foreign markets under the USA Pears brand. At the organization’s annual meeting, President Kevin Moffitt shared highlights of promotional activities in stores and online on shopping platforms and social media. 

Influencers share pear creations — from cheese boards to cocktails — to “inspire consumers to incorporate pears into their daily diets,” Moffitt said, and sponsored search terms help re-create the impulse purchase for consumers who no longer go into the store. 

But inflation poses a challenge. The average retail price of pears just topped $2 per pound in 2022, up 17 percent from the prior year, Moffitt said. In a recent survey conducted by Category Partners, about one-quarter of consumers reported that rising prices pushed them to buy fewer pears. Most fruit categories saw a drop, but the decline for apples was much less pronounced at 4 percent. 

Less of the bureau’s budget is going to direct retail promotions, shifting to online promotions and consumer advertising, Moffitt said. 

Some industry leaders said they believe the organization should go further in that direction, while others suggested the industry is due for an assessment increase to maintain its efforts. 

With rising costs and shorter crops in recent years, “it’s hard to ask the Pear Bureau to do the job we are asking them to do,” said Dick Woodin, president of Congdon Orchards. “We need to be realistic.” 

But digital marketing creates the opportunity to reach more consumers for less money, said Doug Gibson, vice president of Mount Adams Fruit. 

Board members Mike Taylor of Stemilt Growers and Shawn Cox of the Peshastin Hi-Up Growers co-op proposed a motion that a new vision for domestic promotion and advertising spending should be developed before asking growers for an assessment increase. The board voted to support that plan and tasked a domestic marketing subcommittee with taking a new look at how the budget can best be allocated. 

The board recommended keeping the assessment in place for now. 

The assessment is set by the Fresh Pear Committee, which was established under the industry’s federal marketing order. That committee voted to maintain the assessment this year at 0.468 cents per box, which is allocated at 0.385 cents for promotion, 0.045 cents for research and 0.038 cents for administration. 

The bureau’s export committee discussed the need to focus promotion efforts on the top markets — Mexico, Canada and Latin America — and pull back on spending in offshore markets where logistical challenges and freight costs have severely limited shipments in recent years. 

“Mexico is huge, and we need to keep engaging young people and convert that market to red pears, too,” said Lina Sanchez, director of export sales for Duckwall Fruit. Plus, inland freight to Mexico is far less risky than the frequent delays plaguing ocean freight. 

“I do have confidence that we have good potential in the Latin American markets. This is the area we are going to have to focus, our continent,” said Jeff Webb, director of international business development at Domex Superfresh Growers. 

Meanwhile, formerly strong offshore markets, such as India, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, now feel like longshots. 

“The feeling from the board is that India is no longer a viable place to place $100,000 in grower money,” said committee chair Bryan Peebles, export manager at Chelan Fresh. 

“There’s no extraordinary event on the horizon that’s going to change the picture. We need to continue to focus on Mexico and Canada,” said Dave Martin, export sales manager for Stemilt Growers. 

Pear Bureau Northwest’s international marketing director Jeff Correa told the board that, based on direction from the export committee, the program’s $4.5 million budget (including $3.2 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture Market Access Program funding) will pull back in those offshore markets, with more resources allocated to an “on-demand” fund that responds to volumes shipped to smaller markets as the season progresses. 

by Kate Prengaman

Retail perspectives

Walmart sells more fresh pears than any other U.S. retailer, and the company has partnered with Pear Bureau Northwest on many initiatives, from ripening programs to online shopping promotions, said Kevin Moffitt, president of the pear bureau.

That supportive relationship continued when Moffitt invited Carrie Mack, Walmart’s senior sourcing manager for pears and apples, to speak to the pear industry when the bureau held its annual meeting in Wenatchee in late May.

“So, for any apples and pears you see in the stores, I’m the glue between the grower, the marketer and Walmart,” Mack said, by way of introduction. “I’m able to see how your business and mine come together.”

But the businesses face a common challenge: inflation. 

Mack described Walmart’s average customer as a mom from a rural community with an income under $50,000. “They are making hard decisions about how they stretch their budget and feed their families,” she said. “As they are switching to frozen and canned, it is critical that we collaborate to provide fresh, nourishing pears at everyday low prices.”

Walmart has another, more affluent set of customers who routinely order their groceries and other essentials online — a trend that started during the pandemic but shows no sign of slowing, Mack said. 

Across the entire fresh produce section, pears comprise just 1.7 percent of the revenue, between blackberries and pineapples. To grow that number and sell more pears, Mack emphasized price management. Over the past few years, the industry has made great strides across the supply chain to deliver quality, consistent pears, so that’s not what is holding back sales, she said. 

“Once the price exceeds the average apple or exceeds $2 per pound, you can see where it starts to decline,” she said, showing a chart of pear volumes through the season. “So, what we need to think about as an industry and as partners is: How do we keep an f.o.b. at a sustainable rate that brings customers to the category and doesn’t turn them away?” 

That means an f.o.b. that’s sustainable for growers as well, Mack added. Her ideas for meeting this challenge include developing a yearlong promotion plan for pears, including “f.o.b. support” to entice customers with rollback prices and offering pears in a value bag. The “#nofilter” value bag concept started with apples, giving cost-conscious consumers a chance to buy cosmetically challenged fruit. 

“What we’re trying to do with this #nofilter bag is see if we can pull customers away from watermelons and Cuties and into pears, if it’s a true value for that customer,” she said. It also gives shippers a chance to sell pear cultivars that otherwise Walmart won’t stock. 

When asked about the best thing the pear industry can do to sell more fruit, Mack recommended growers keep prices low and share their stories with consumers on social media. 

—K. Prengaman