It is no surprise that Dr. Paul Chen plans to spend his retirement years experimenting on the vegetable plants in his home garden.
The Oregon State University scientist has dedicated the last 25 years of his career to research that has helped lengthen the storage life of winter pears and sped up their ripening process in the marketplace.
“The ideas are very simple, but to implement them is a challenge,” said Chen, who has worked to reach these objectives while using biochemicals already present in fruit to reduce the use of manmade products.
On any given day, Chen’s laboratory at the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center (MCAREC), is filled with pears in all stages of ripening. With equal interest, he sorts through the delectable yellow pome fruit and the less appealing brown and moldy pears. And he eats one or two of his experimentations each week. That is a dietary habit that Chen hopes to pass on to consumers since he believes that the anti-oxidents in pears can help prevent cancer.
“This is a very healthy food and if you know how to ripen it, then you can enjoy the pear as much as other fruit,” said Chen.
His goal has been to help pear growers get their food to the market on the verge of ripening, so that it is ready for consumption within a short period of time — but in no danger of spoilage or bruising. While that technique is being advanced commercially, Chen said shoppers can follow the same guidelines by placing pears in a paper bag with bananas, which release ethylene gas that hastens the maturation process. He said that methodology can reduce the ripening period by half, from a four to five day stretch to between two and three days.
And his workload has gotten busier over the years, with the production of Northwest winter pears increasing from five million boxes when he first arrived at the OSU branch office to the current 15 million. Today, Chen said pears that are sent to market within five to six months can now successfully be kept in storage for up to nine months.
And that extension of shelf life is due, in part, to Chen’s research that the quality of tree fruit remained higher during storage with lowered oxygen levels. In addition, he discovered that oxygen reductions also ward off scald disorder and that changes in extractable juice and water-soluble pectins in pears were predictive grading tools during storage.
Chen, a full OSU professor, has documented these findings — which have played a role and other successful facets of his experimentation in numerous research papers that are shared with his peers, OSU students and foreign dignitaries.
Although Chen officially tendered his resignation on Feb. 1, he will remain part-time at the MCAREC until the end of the year to wind up current projects and train his successor.
Then he plans to travel and spend time puttering among the plant species in his Hood River yard.
However, Chen intends to make regular visits to the lab where he has devoted countless hours of time. In fact, he plans to check in once a week — and bring donuts for everyone to enjoy over a cup of coffee at break time.
“I will miss mostly the staff here and also the good connections with the fruit industry,” said Chen, who was honored for his contributions to the agriculture community with a tribute dinner last week.
Clark Seavert, superintendent of the Experiment Station, said the room at the dinner was packed with Chen’s peers and constituents — a good indicator of the high level of respect that he has earned.
“When you take a look at Paul you think, ‘this is just the model employee,’ and we’ve been lucky to have him for 25 years,” he said.
Seavert said Chen has not only been a vital part of the OSU team, but of Hood River County as well, as proven by his sponsorship of two high school scholarships each year.
“He has a true commitment to the community and it shows,” Seavert said.