The weather delivers: pear harvest looks plentiful

Pear harvest going well, countywide

PACKING and shipping are in full swing at Hood River County packing houses. Workers fill cartons with Bartletts at Duckwall Pooley in Odell, where three shifts are filling 20,000 cartons a day. Fred Duckwall said the fruit is clean with minimal russeting or damage, and that the pears are loaded daily for shipping to domestic and foreign markets.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea
PACKING and shipping are in full swing at Hood River County packing houses. Workers fill cartons with Bartletts at Duckwall Pooley in Odell, where three shifts are filling 20,000 cartons a day. Fred Duckwall said the fruit is clean with minimal russeting or damage, and that the pears are loaded daily for shipping to domestic and foreign markets.

The summer pear harvest is just finishing up, and overall, it looks very good.

Craig Mallon, Quality Control Manager at Duckwall, said that this year’s crop of Bartlett and Starkcrimson pears have exceeded expectations.

“It’s a very nice, clean, large crop so far,” he said. “We had really favorable weather in the spring — very few frosty nights and pretty warm days. Everything started nice.”

Lower fruit prices generally occur with large harvests, but two factors make Mallon “cautiously optimistic” about what this year’s crop will bring in. First, farmers in the southern hemisphere are just finishing selling last year’s crop, which means there won’t be much overlap with North American farmers. And second, Wenatchee, Wash., another large northwest pear growing region, is estimating a smaller crop of winter pears than previously expected.

That’s good news for Hood River County farmers. In the upper valley, Paul Lavoie of Lavoie Orchards said his crews finished Bartletts Aug. 28, and he estimates production was up over last year.

“I haven’t looked at many of my neighbor’s orchards because I’ve been so busy staring at mine, but the numbers I do have, overall numbers are within 15- to 20-percent over what I had last year,” he said. “There’s a lot of pears, in a range of sizes — not uniformly huge like last year, but overall, I’m pleased with what we put in the bin and the volume.”

In Hood River, John Benton of John and Julie Benton, Inc., echoed Lavoie’s thoughts.

“Last year, we had a bad bloom season down here in this part of the county,” he said. “This year, we had a great spring for bees — we set everything we had.

“As far as finish goes, it’s really good; seems like a great year,” Benton added. “We packed up some Bartletts and almost couldn’t find anything wrong with them — and we’re in a windy spot, by the airport. I figured we’d lose a little bit, but packout was really, really good.”

In the middle valley, things are just as good — so good, in fact, that crews will start picking winter pears this week.

“The season is going well so far,” said Yasui, Inc.’s Flip Yasui. “We might be starting about Wednesday for winter pears, a good week to 10 days early.”

The Yasuis grow Bartletts, which they’ve just finished picking, as well as Anjous, Boscs and Forelles. “It’s a good crop, fairly good size, and pretty clean,” he said.

Benton expected growers in the Hood River area would be picking their crop of winter pears by Monday, if not earlier.

Winter pears aren’t quite ready in Parkdale, but Lavoie is expecting production to be on par with last year.

Besides Green Bartletts, Lavoie grows Green Anjous, Red Anjous, Comice, Seckle, regular Bosc and Golden Bosc varieties, and “across the board, (the winter pears) are a pretty big crop.

“We had a big crop last year, and I’d say what I’m looking at this year is on par with that,” Lavoie said. “It’s hard to predict when you’re looking at the tree, but everyone is saying the same thing.”

Whether or not there will be adequate labor to get the pear harvest in has yet to be seen. So far, there have been enough workers to get the crop off of the trees. But the volume of summer pears picked “isn’t as big as when we pick winter pears,” Mallon said. “The true test will come next week, when the winter pear harvest gets underway. There is a concern labor will be an issue.”

Labor has not yet been an issue for either Benton or Lavoie.

“We’re not real short of help this year, that’s just me,” said Benton. “I think people don’t travel as much (to other jobs).”

On his farm, “lots of our workforce are family members who have been here for a while.”

His pays a set rate per bin, with bonuses for those who stay the entire season. But, he explained, “nobody has a contract, it’s all at will at both ends—if they want to show up for five days and go somewhere else, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Lavoie said that while everyone’s labor situation is unique, he is lucky to be farming with father-in-law Jim Donnelly, longtime Upper Valley resident, who has a labor camp the two share.

“He’s cultivated these relationships with people who have picked with us for a long time,” Lavoie said. “If I came into this cold, it would be difficult (to find enough workers), but having that connection, in my case, makes it pretty stable every year.”

The forecasted cooler weather — temperatures are slated to be in the 70s instead of the 90s — will also help with harvest. “We just need a reprieve (from the hot weather), plus during harvest, those temperatures are extremely difficult for pickers. We definitely have their safety in the forefront of our mind and will stop picking earlier in the day because it’s almost unbearable.”

Yasui hasn’t run into problems with labor, either, but does have concerns. “It looks like the whole valley will be starting pretty close to the heels of everyone else,” he said, which could lead to worker shortage, especially if Parkdale begins its harvest in the midst of the Mid Valley harvest.

“But I should be alright, I hope,” he added.

What’s made this such a great year for pears? “I’d like to say ‘amazing farming,’ but so much is dependent on the weather,” Lavoie said. “We had great weather during bloom, and the several months following bloom was quite warm, which is great for cell division.” (Cell division is important because only a certain number of cells can grow, Lavoie said, and the more cells, the bigger the pear.)

Overall, the weather has been “pretty much ideal” for growing pears, but not for size. “In my opinion, the temperatures that we experienced, the hot summer, that stresses the trees and they pull their resources into surviving instead of producing fruit. At my place, I don’t have quite the size I did last year on my Anjous.”

“This year, the weather has been the big talking point,” Lavoie said. “The great weather has delivered another nice crop for us, and we just have to not mess it up and get it in the bins.”

Yasui agreed that mild spring weather helped with pollination.

“Probably a big reason, though, is that we didn’t have any frost,” he said. “We only ran our fans about six hours all last spring.” The fans usually run much more than that,” he said.

All in all, this has the mark of a banner year.

“With enough crew, everybody’s relaxed,” Benton said of his operation. “Hopefully, we’ll have us a nice, easy, smooth sailing and not bunched up sweet little harvest, and go along and do what we do.

“Personally, I think harvest is going to be easy unless something really weird happens,” he added. “That’s me being optimistic, which I’m usually not, so…”

Part of “doing what they do” is loading the fruit onto trucks, and Benton warns drivers not to pull out in front of the big rigs; because of their weight, the trucks aren’t able to make quick stops, which can cause accidents.

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