On the world scale, China, the European Union (EU) and the U.S. are the largest pear producers. China is responsible for around two-thirds of the world’s commercial pear crop, while the European Union (EU) and U.S only account for around 10% and 3% respectively.
Washington and Oregon are the nation’s dominant players in pear production, accounting for approximately 80% of U.S. acres and production.
Northwest pears are primarily produced in the Yakima and Wenatchee areas of Washington and the Rogue River Valley and Hood River areas of Oregon. Although some producers raise pears as a primary crop, they often are grown as a secondary crop to other tree fruits.
Additional information about pear varieties is available via the internet at www.usapears.com
Growth and HarvestPear trees grow from rootstock. Some orchards grow their own rootstock, however, most rootstock is established in nurseries. Rootstock is selected based on qualities that make growth successful, such as anchorage and resistance to pests and diseases. Innovation in rootstock afforded to other tree fruit industries has been slow to develop for the pear industry, which has only a limited selection of dwarfing and vigorously growing rootstocks.
Rootstock grows in the field for about a year. Then, specific pear-tree varieties are grafted onto rootstock and grown in a nursery until ready for replanting in an orchard, usually within a couple of years. Once a pear tree is planted in an orchard it takes about five years to reach full production. New pear trees require pruning and training to get an appropriate structure to bear a crop.
Pear trees are susceptible to fire blight during the active growth state. Some treatments, usually applied when trees are newly planted, help manage exposure. If a tree does get fire blight, the infected sections of the tree will be removed. Occasionally, whole trees need to be removed.
Before harvest, fruitlet thinning to control fruit size is done on Bartlett trees, the only pear trees needing thinned. Harvest begins in early August and runs through late October. Pears are picked by hand since no machine has the capability of maneuvering around bigger, traditionally shaped trees. Pears are picked into bins and sent to the packing warehouses.
PackersAfter pears are harvested, they are sent to a packing line where they are washed, sorted, packed and stored. Along the packing line, pears fall into a grader that will sort by shape and size. Packers pick individual pears out of the tub of sorted pears, wrap them in a protective tissue paper and pack them in boxes or bags. Camera technology that allows for defect sorting is available and is slowly making its way into production. However, it is not currently common.
Pears either go to fresh pack or are processed. Pears with quality issues are processed, usually canned or pureed, and sold at lower prices. Pears that do not meet quality standards are discarded and reduce packouts. On the packing line, pears are destined for either retailers or storage, depending on the marketing-sales desk and fruit quality. Packing houses build up a large inventory during harvest. Marketing of the fruit continues until inventory is sold, typically in January/February for smaller packing houses and April/May for larger warehouses.
Large fruit-packing warehouses are generally vertically integrated through purchase of orchards or production-packing agreements with large, independent fruit growers. Advantages include increased control of supply. Fruit packers need at least 80,000 bins of throughput annually to capitalize on new technologies.
Alignment between growers and packers is not the only place the pear industry has consolidated tasks under one roof. Several packing warehouses sell their own fruit, or more commonly sell through the marketing-sales desks of another packing warehouse. This has been accomplished through agreements to market through a common sales force.
Marketing-Sales DesksThe domestic tree-fruit market is dominated by large retail grocery chains. Chains prefer to purchase fruit from operations with the size and scope to supply a large number of stores with high-quality fruit. This has driven packing warehouses to join marketing-sales desks to collectively meet large retail firms’ needs. As a result, the Northwest tree-fruit industry is consolidated down to less than 30 marketing-sales desks, with the 10 largest moving the bulk of the fruit produced.
Fresh pears are normally sold through the same marketing network as apples. Typical retail buyer preference is to purchase mixed loads that may include an assortment of apples and pears in every 1,000-box truckload. As a result, packing houses that offer a broad array of fruit are the most successful at making loyal customers of large retail merchants.
RetailersOne of the most important retail challenges confronting the fresh pear industry is timing fruit ripening with consumers’ purchases. Pears do not ripen when maintained in a chilled environment. On the other hand, they ripen quickly when exposed to room temperature and soon break down to the point at which they become unmarketable. Pear handling, as evidenced on instructional labels that explain proper storage and ripening guidelines, has improved considerably to fulfill customers’ expectations for ripeness. But retailers have not reached complete agreement as to the most effective handling techniques. New technologies, combined with shipping and handling improvements, will continue to lead the industry closer to establishing consensus methods.
For years, packing houses used anti-ripening agents in attempts to keep pears in better condition for consumers. However, these anti-ripening agents haven’t been very successful and are attributed to poor consumer experiences. Therefore, several pear packing houses have stopped the use of anti-ripening agents.
Pears, particularly the Bartlett variety, are unique within the tree fruit industry in that about a third of the crop is grown specifically for processing (canning) purposes. The marketing of canned pears is straightforward: Processors sell directly and through food brokers to chain stores, institutional buyers and food wholesalers. Usually, canned pears are packed according to buyer specifications and under buyer-specified labels.
LaborThe scarcity of labor continues to drive up labor costs; growers and packers continue to look for ways to cut costs by deploying labor resources efficiently and adopting systems and practices that reduce labor needs.
Historically, orchardists relied on word of mouth and returning workers to fill their labor needs. However, a more proactive approach is now required. Orchardists are competing for and retaining workers by raising wages, working with labor contractors and keeping well-maintained labor camps.
The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program provides an outlet for attracting and retaining labor. However, the program is costly and requirements are complex. Program participation requires employers to provide transportation from country of origin, housing, transportation to and from work, and a place to prepare or furnish meals. The employer must guarantee employment for at least 75% of the contracted work days.
Orchard Management Techniques
Producers can alter growing practices, techniques and management styles to better accommodate workers and improve labor efficiencies. Producers who diversify operations with multiple varieties, sites, elevations, etc., not only reduce crop risk, but extend production and harvest seasons. Extending the harvest season requires fewer workers spread over longer periods of time.
Impact of Growing Conditions on Labor
Growing-season conditions affect the harvest window and labor needed, and compressed harvest seasons affect the number of workers available. If an entire region is experiencing a light crop, the majority of the workforce may bypass an orchard completely for more productive areas.
Pears can also lose labor to other tree-fruit harvests. For example, Gala apples are harvested about the same time as pears. Apples are often easier and more profitable for pickers due to the ability for apple trees to be planted in high-density orchards and fruit walls.
Adverse weather such as frost, excessive heat, wind, rain and hail can affect the quality of the fruit to be harvested, creating a need for intensified field sorting or selective picking. These can significantly increase labor costs and affect profitability.
The bulk of Northwest tree-fruit crops are sold in the domestic market. However, key foreign markets for pears include Mexico, Canada, the UAE (namely Dubai) and Brazil. Mexico and Canada are by far the largest importers of Northwest pears, typically consuming 15% and 8% of the total crop.
Technological advances in the tree-fruit industry are driven by the need to maximize labor and monetary and natural resources, while increasing yields and productivity. The cost of technology is significant, but producers reap substantial economic rewards when proven technologies are implemented as part of an overall business strategy.
GPS and variable-rate technologies for fertilizer and water applications continue to gain acceptance among tree-fruit producers. The need for increased oversight in water management has also promoted increased use of digital drip irrigation systems that can be controlled remotely with technologies such as smart phones and tablets.
The use of drones continues to expand, improving the availability and quality of data for orchard managers. An array of camera and sensor options provides detailed analysis including the identification of soil, moisture, erosion and temperature conditions. Adoption of drone technology will likely increase in the coming years as producers increase focus on precision agriculture.
Pear-packing technologies continue to advance. Northwest pear packers are expected to make significant investments in packing-line technology over the next several years.
Meeting Consumer Expectations
Future technological improvements include food safety and an increased social media presence. Changes to food safety regulatory standards may require modifications to current packing processes and require substantial capital investments. Direct contact with consumers through social media helps producers debunk misconceptions about tree-fruit production, market fresh fruit and related products, and obtain insight into changing consumer preferences.
Warehouses reducing the use of anti-ripening agents, adding information on packing to help customers determine when fruit is ripe and USA Pears increasing marketing dollars are some ways the industry is attempting to improve consumers’ experiences.
Best PracticesThe following summarizes the best practices common among successful and progressive tree-fruit growers and processors. These primarily relate to issues of production and warehousing.
Orchard Production Best PracticesHave a strategic plan
- Successful businesses have defined goals and are continually in the process of executing specific strategies in their business. These strategies may include growth (e.g., diversification, replication, integration, networking), downsizing/rightsizing or intensifying (i.e., improving efficiency).
- Growers increase gross revenue through a combination of reaping high yields, producing desirable fruit varieties and peaking on a demanded size profile.
- Growers manage fixed and variable expenses, which allows for lower break-even levels.
- Focusing on orchards of an economic size is key to long-term cost competitiveness.
- Growers achieve diversification by growing multiple types and varieties of fruit.
- Successful growers diversify, when possible, by cultivating crops in differing geographic areas to hedge against widespread weather-related adversity.
- Growers use available risk management tools, such as crop insurance, to mitigate the risk of adverse and unforeseen events that could drastically affect the business. Crop insurance options include three variations of coverage: production based, revenue based and named peril. Most producers use some combination of these products to tailor a protection strategy that matches the specific safety needs of their business.
- Weak blocks need to be updated. Over 15 percent of total planted acres on average may be pre-productive at any one time.
- When their operations lack critical mass, successful producers align with other growers to attract picking crews and assure them of a consistent supply of work that extends from the start of cherry through pear and apple harvests. Access to a dependable labor force will continue to be an important piece of orchard production going forward.
- Growers also might partner with other growers to leverage volume discounts for equipment, chemicals, fertilizers, fuel and other necessary inputs.
- Successful growers align with successful packing or storage warehouses that provide competitive services at reasonable costs. These warehouses need to have quality facilities and current fruit-handling and -packing equipment. Growers who align with successful warehouses tend to perform with more consistent profitability.
- Successful growers place fruit with packing and storage warehouses aligned with a strong marketing-sales desk. This provides ready access to large domestic and international retail markets, which translates into the most competitive returns.
- Successful fruit growers have established and implemented a labor strategy for their business that will ensure their seasonal labor needs are met.
- Progressive tree-fruit growers need to be prepared to furnish housing and year-round employment as a means of retaining key employees.
- To help alleviate labor shortages during peak harvest times, producers have begun planting several varieties at different locations or elevations. This creates varied harvest times and a steadier labor-demand window.
- Larger producers are able to move workers from one orchard to another over larger geographic areas to ensure the labor force is retained.
- Many producers are successfully using the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program. Although somewhat expensive, the program provides a feasible solution to labor needs.
- Some producers have successfully used contractors who, for a fee, offer full-service labor. However, this practice has met some resistance, mostly because of timing and scheduling considerations.
- Development of labor-reducing or "picker-friendly" tree-planting styles is proving to be an advantage in terms of the ability to attract and retain an adequate labor supply.
- Successful operations use accrual-based reporting to assess true financial position and performance. These growers also use enterprise accounting to assess profitable and unprofitable business units, or orchard blocks.
- Orchardists with strong liquidity and lower leverage are able to absorb market down cycles and take advantage of strategic opportunities.
- A business should assess the adequacy of its financial position annually by using tools such as financial ratios, peer financial benchmarks and historical trend analyses.
- Stress case scenarios may also be used to give an accurate picture of the true financial position of the business given possible adverse scenarios.
Warehousing Best PracticesHave a strategic plan
- Successful businesses have goals and are continually in the process of executing specific strategies in their business. These strategies may include growth (e.g., diversification, replication, integration, networking), downsizing/rightsizing or intensifying (i.e., improving efficiency).
- Successful warehouses maximize use of fixed assets.
- Improved use results in reduced per-unit costs, which enables warehouses to maintain competitive grower returns.
- Warehouses, as processing entities, must contain fixed and variable costs to maintain competitive packing charges and maximize income levels.
- Cost containment allows a warehouse to reduce the level of throughput needed to break even in short crop years when fruit supplies are more scarce than usual.
- Allied packing warehouses trade packing and storage capacity to use assets to their fullest potential. This situation is most often seen with warehouses using a common marketing-sales desk.
- Aligned warehouses can dedicate a specific line to a particular variety, with fewer changeovers.
- Sharing and balancing storage needs, improving the variety and size profile of manifest for marketing-sales desks and working together to realize increasingly efficient logistics and distribution are inherent advantages of partnership.
- Successful packing warehouses align with marketing-sales desks that have steady access to a wide range of retail customers that use a broad portion of the total manifest, ultimately, to maximize fruit returns to the grower.
- Some integrated operations also own and operate a marketing-sales desk.
- Successful packing warehouses must closely monitor marketing-sales desk performance to ensure that competitive returns are realized on packed fruit.
- New technology, both in the field and in the warehouse, could reduce labor requirements substantially over the next five to 10 years.
- Packing warehouses align with growers to assure their targeted product throughput.
- Integrated operations grow a significant portion of the fruit that they pack.
- When working with retailers, value-added processes may prove to be a competitive differentiator. Such processes include inventory management, labeling, traceability programs, promotions and other value-enhancing activities.
- Warehouses with strong liquidity and lower leverage are able to weather adversity and take advantage of strategic opportunities.
- A business should assess the adequacy of its financial position annually by using tools such as financial ratios, peer financial benchmarks and historical trend analyses.
- Stress case scenarios may also be used to give an accurate picture of the true financial position of the business.
Boxes. Pears are hauled and stored in bins, but packed for shipping in smaller, cardboard boxes. A box of pears is 44 pounds.
Bud. Found in the axils (the upper angle between a leaf stalk or branch and the stem or trunk from which it is growing), a bud is basically a dormant and compressed shoot, which given the right conditions will resume growth.
CA storage. Controlled atmospheric storage varies in size to hold from 10,000 boxes to 100,000 boxes. These rooms are sealed, and oxygen levels are reduced by the infusion of nitrogen gas to reduce the level of oxygen from approximately 20% down to 1%-2%. The temperature of these rooms is kept between 32° and 36° Fahrenheit. This helps to keep the pears fresh tasting long after harvest because it slows the ripening process of stored pears. After pears are taken out of CA storage, they are moved to a ripening room with higher temperatures that initiate ripening.
Cambium. The thin layer of tissue, often green or greenish yellow, between the bark and the wood on a tree; in grafting, it is important to line up the cambium between rootstock and scion.
Central leader. A tree where the main branch goes straight up the center.
Clone. A genetically identical group of plants derived and maintained from one individual by vegetative propagation.
Cold hardiness (hardy). The ability of plants to withstand cold injury (autumn-winter).
Cold storage. A form of refrigerated storage
Cross pollination. Pollen moving from one flower to another, whether on the same plant or among flowers on different plants. Pollen moved between different plants often results in fruit that is different from either parent (i.e., a hybrid of the two).
Culls. Fruit that is discarded at the warehouse and will not go to market.
Cultivar. A plant variety that has been produced by selective breeding.
Dormant. The inactive or sleeping state in which a plant stops growing but is still alive.
Drip irrigation. Watering through soaker hoses or emitters placing water at plant bases on the soil surface; the least wasteful method of watering.
Drip line. The rough circle that may be drawn on the ground around a tree where rain would drip off the outermost leaves. The most active roots are often located along this line.
Fire blight. A bacterial disease that causes the branches and fruit on a pear tree to turn black and die. An apt name, the plant looks as if it has been scorched.
Fresh. Fruits (or vegetables) that are harvested and sold without the intention of further processing. Generally, fresh fruits will be consumed raw or cooked by the consumer.
Frost damage. Cold-temperature injury during some stage of the growing season. Parts affected are flower buds, flowers, and young fruit (spring) or near-mature fruit or other tissues (fall).
Fruiting wood. The smaller wood or spurs on which the fruit is actually grown.
GLOBALGAP. An internationally recognized set of farm standards dedicated to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). Through certification, producers demonstrate their adherence to GLOBALGAP standards. For consumers and retailers, the GLOBALGAP certificate is reassurance that food reaches accepted levels of safety and quality, and has been produced sustainably, respecting the health, safety and welfare of workers and the environment, and in consideration of animal welfare issues. Without such reassurance, farmers may be denied access to markets.
Grafting. A way to propagate a plant by inserting a section of one plant (the scion) into another plant (the stock).
Hardiness. Ability of the plant to withstand temperature extremes; usually refers to cold hardiness
High density. Ground planted at 135 pear trees per acre is considered high density.
King blossom. The larger dominant blossom that is usually found in the center of the blossom cluster, surrounded by the yet unopened ‘side blossoms.’ The largest fruit will come from the king blossom.
Organic certification. Verifies that a farm or handling facility complies with USDA organic regulations. This certification allows the holder to sell, label and represent products as organic. Farms all over the world may be certified to the USDA organic standards. Most farms and businesses that grow, handle or process organic products must be certified.
Packouts. The number of boxes of fruit that can be packed out of a bin
Packer. The company that owns the warehouse where pears are packed, stored and shipped
Pickers. Workers who pick the tree fruit by hand, and carefully handle it to ensure good quality fruit. The picker wears a bucket that has a canvas bottom, held shut with a drawstring. When the bucket is full, the worker empties it into a wooden bin by releasing the string.
Pollination. The transfer of pollen from the male part of flowers (the anthers) to the female part (the stigma). In most tree fruit, the transfer is accomplished by insects. There are not enough wild bees to pollinate commercial orchards, and poor pollination results in a small fruit crop. To ensure good pollination, growers place beehives throughout the orchard for 10 to 14 days during the bloom. Full bloom is when good pollination is essential.
Processing. Fruit that is typically canned, sliced or juiced and not sent to the fresh market.
Pruning. The removal of living canes, shoots, leaves and other vegetative parts of the branch.
Rootstalk. Sometimes called stock, this is the root system (plant) propagated from seed (seedling) or vegetatively. Various cultivars are budded or grafted onto rootstalk. Many rootstocks are used and possess traits that relate to anchorage, size control, tolerance of light and heavy soils, “wet feet,” specific nematodes and other plants and diseases.
Marketing-sales desk. Sells and markets fruit on behalf of packers.
Scion. A detached stem, usually dormant, used in asexual propagation by grafting techniques. The scion is the actual fruit variety that gets grafted on to the rootstock.
Set. The amount of fruit held on the tree.
Shoot. Wood that is usually not over one or two years old and is longer than the short, stubby spur growth.
Spur. A short shoot with compressed internodes. Spurs grow from 2-year or older branches and produce flowers and fruit. Flower spurs are best exemplified in apple and pear trees.
Sucker. A cane that emerges from below the bud union, and therefore comes from the rootstock rather than from the variety grafted onto it. On other plants, a sucker is any unwanted, fast-growing, upright growth from roots, trunk, crown or main branches.
Sunburn. The damage caused by the hot summer sun on the branches, “cooking” or destroying the bark and tissues.
Thinning. Removal of flower clusters, immature clusters or part of immature clusters.
Training. Certain practices that are supplementary to pruning and necessary for shaping the vine.
Variety. Commonly used to mean the same as cultivar. Technically, variety means a naturally occurring variant of a species.
Vigor. Refers to amount and rate of growth; relative among cultivars, climates and horticultural practices.