Pear harvest sweeps in early

Article author: 
Patrick Mulvihill, Kirby Neumann-Rea, Trisha Walker
Article publisher: 
Hood River News
Article date: 
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Article category: 
Oregon Issues
Article Body: 

Harsh summer temperatures ushered in an early pear harvest for Hood River Valley.

Fruit bearing trees were ready two weeks early, causing pickers to scramble and collect the crop starting in late July.

The Hood River News talked ramifications with growers around the upper and lower valley. The consensus: summer pears are looking good, if in some cases a little small. Laborers to pick the fruit also remains an issue.

Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers executive director Jean Godfrey said the pear harvest began last week, which is two weeks earlier than its usual mid-August start.

She’s hearing from growers (and the company represents 350 of them), that while the crop is “clean” — meaning low russeting — the overall fruit size is smaller than usual.

“I’m hearing that it looks good, but it’s a little smaller than we’d like,” Godfrey said. “That’s due to the weather; it’s been so hot and it stresses the trees. But the crop is about an average-size crop.”

Some growers are seeing full-bodied pears, however.

Bartletts are next for Parkdale grower Gordy Sato, who said the Starkrimson crop is coming in fast this week. All told, “the pears are beautiful,” he said, large and russet-free, referring to the reddish spotting and dimpling that can make most varieties of pears less marketable.

“Our pears are definitely sizing up, generally larger than the lower valley,” said Sato. “I know that some growers are seeing smaller sizes. They had cold weather at the wrong times, and then watering cutbacks, particularly in the Farmers Irrigation District,” he said.

Lower valley grower Craig McCurdy of McCurdy Farms, which grows primarily pears, said that location is key when it comes to fruit size and quality because the topography and soil change the farther south you go.

McCurdy’s farm taps into Farmers Irrigation, and he’s had to cut back on watering due to drought conditions, which affect size and quality. Also detrimental was a hail storm that hammered the lower valley in early May. It narrowly missed his trees, but it damaged others in the area.

His fruit size is good, but quality “might be a little off from what it was last year, just due to heat,” he said. “We’re getting a little sunburn and more yellowing to the fruit, especially on Anjous.”

Craig Mallon, Quality Control Manager at Duckwall Fruit, explained that pears have shrunk throughout much of the valley due to the “defense mechanism” of fruit trees in response to summer heat spells, which scorched into the triple digits.

This could hurt the value of the crop. Smaller pears means smaller profits, he said, as well as less space filled in each bin of fruit.

“The pear size will be smaller than the average year,” said Mallon. “The overall Bartlett crop might be down as much as 10 to 12 percent.”

Another issue local orchardists face is lack of staffing.

“Our main problem is finding pickers,” Sato said. Enrolling in U.S. Labor Department programs last year and this year has helped, but Sato said immigration rules and an aging harvest work force are main contributors to a general work force shortage in Oregon and California.

McCurdy said his farm is okay for the time being. However, “labor is going to become a bigger and bigger issue as we go along,” he said. “It’s not going to go away.” Many of his workers are second or third generation valley residents, and travel across the border between the United States and Mexico.

Increasingly, third generation residents are pursuing careers outside the Ag sector, said McCurdy.

“The third generation graduated from high school here, and most of my employees have kids in college,” McCurdy said. They’re shifting away from ag, he said, because they’ve grown up with it — as have his own children — and “they don’t want anything to do with it.”

At Duckwall Fruit, there’s no shortage of labor for the Bartlett harvest, said Mallon, but the issue could rear up for other varieties later this year.

“It doesn’t seem like an overabundance of staff,” said Mallon.

Godfrey said by the time Anjou picking comes around, there will be a shortage.