State pear growers report quality crop


Issue Date: September 9, 2015
By Christine Souza
Louis Perez, a seasonal employee for Adobe Creek Orchards in Kelseyville, above, harvests Golden Bosc pears for the fresh market.
Photo/Christine Souza
Golden Bosc pears was large and fruit was of good quality.
Photo/Christine Souza
In Lake County, Shirley Campbell, controller and longtime employee at Adobe Creek Orchards, looks over the Golden Bosc crop with lead foreman Nacho Gutierrez.
Photo/Christine Souza

Growers from California's two primary pear growing regions—Lake and Mendocino counties and the Sacramento River Delta—are wrapping up harvest this year with positive reports about fruit quality and price. Together, the two regions are expected to produce approximately 170,000 tons of pears this year that will be sold in fresh and canned markets across the U.S. and around the globe.

"In general, it was a pretty good pear crop. Fruit size had very nice distribution and overall, demand has been good," said Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Pear Advisory Board. "Our total crop for California for Bartlett was estimated at 159,500 tons and our preliminary report shows that Bartletts were 158,286 tons, so I believe we will be at the 159,000 figure."

Shirley Campbell, controller at Adobe Creek Orchards, said the growing season was about two weeks earlier than normal due to the mild weather. Like many other growers in the state, Adobe Creek finished harvesting Bartlett pears last month and is wrapping up harvesting of later varieties such as the Golden Bosc. Owned and operated by Ken Barr, Adobe Creek was a packer and shipper of pears for 26 years until this spring, when Barr decided to close the packing plant and sell the majority of this season's Bartlett pears to canneries in need of supply.

"We closed the packing shed officially in March," said Campbell, a longtime employee at Adobe Creek. "We felt closing our packing shed would be a plus for the industry because it would be one less entity having to share the market. It is a changing industry, but for pears we think that it is changing for the better."

Challenges with finding employees also played into the company's decision to sell the packing shed this year, said Campbell. The company typically hires about 440 employees, about half for packing fresh pears and the remainder for harvest. But even with needing about 240 employees to harvest pears, labor was so tight that five farm labor contractors were unable to source the total number of employees they needed, she said.

"Every year it seems the amount of people available to help with harvest decreases," Campbell said. "The Lake County crop usually comes in behind the (Sacramento) River crop and Lake has to wait for the pickers to get done picking, and this year there was an overlap, which made it even harder."

Adobe Creek Orchards sold a large portion of its Bartlett pears to the cannery, although the company did have some fruit packed for the fresh market by Scully Packing Co., now the area's only remaining commercial packing facility.

Toni Scully of Scully Packing said, "We are the last packinghouse in the county. It has been a Lake County tradition for five generations and this is our 32nd year."

She added that although pears have been replaced by vineyards and other crops over the years, the area still produces about 20 percent of all the pears grown in the state and ships about 25 percent of all fresh shipments.

"Our industry is very much alive even though we've scaled down. The people who have held on are getting their reward now," Scully said. "We've had some lean times, but we've gotten through it, and now the future looks bright."

According to Zanobini, of the 159,500 tons of pears expected this year, 113,000 tons are sold to canneries, 37,200 tons to the fresh market, and the remainder goes to baby food, puree and juice.

Rivermaid Trading Co., the largest grower, packer and shipper of fresh pears in California, represents at least 50 percent of pears packed in the state, with Bartlett pears representing a large share of its business, but also packing other varietals such as boscs, red pears, French butter and Comice.

"The market has been very good on fresh pears. We should be equal or better than the cannery price," said Jerry Colombini, Rivermaid agricultural field representative. "Our guys did good last year and they are going to do good this year. But they needed it. They've had some pretty lean years over the last 10 years."

Fruit quality and size was good this year for pears, Colombini said, but the biggest problem for growers this year was fire blight.

"Fire blight was tremendous this year. It did affect some of the tonnage, but overall, the tonnage was pretty good. It wasn't a bumper crop, but it wasn't a low crop either. It actually turned out better than most of us thought it was going to be," Colombini said.

Sacramento River Delta grower Jeff McCormack, who grows Bartlett pears and other varieties such as bosc, said fire blight was a huge problem this year.

"The Bartlett crop was down substantially because of fire blight. Last year, we had a terrible case of blight and that cut into the production for this year, and then this year is a repeat of last year," said McCormack of Walnut Grove. "There was resistance to the materials that we were putting on; it was like we were spraying water on the trees. It wasn't killing the bacteria. Every blight strike was a cluster of pears that didn't develop into fruit."

Even with the blight problems, McCormack said overall fruit quality is good and prices are favorable, with an $80-per-ton increase from last year's cannery price. Pear growers will not learn what the fresh price will be for pears until later in the year, but McCormack said he believes it should be higher than what growers received last year.

Commenting on the consolidation of packing sheds, McCormack said his family got out of the packing business about eight years ago, "because of all of the regulations."

"Consolidation is obviously happening. The pricing has strengthened, making it a lot more palatable for being in the pear business," McCormack said. "For years, there was too much supply and we couldn't seem to make it. Last year, we had a lighter crop and we actually made more money. Last year was the first really good year that we've had in a long time; supply was down and prices were up."

A higher price for canned fruit was helpful to growers this year, Colombini said, averaging $420 a ton. He added that the future outlook for California pears remains strong.

"Many pear orchards have come out, which has had an effect on demand, which is great for the industry. You don't see anybody planting more Bartletts. The cannery demand also helps. When you get a pretty decent supply and demand scenario, it helps the growers out immensely," Colombini said. "The bottom line is it's about making your growers some money, whether that is for fresh market or for cannery or both. Things are starting to balance out and it's looking pretty good for the pear industry."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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