Pear Growers Say Supply, Demand Have Equalized

Taylor HillmanTree, nut & vine crops

After years of declining prices and reductions in acreage, California pear growers agree they have finally hit a sweet spot.

They say the pear market has remained firm for several years and that demand from canneries and packers is even stronger this year.

“Over the years, orchards have come out and supply is now in line with demand, to the benefit of all of us,” said Toni Scully, a grower and packer in Lake County.

Harvest is underway for the state’s two main growing regions, with the Sacramento River Delta finishing its later varieties, while Lake and Mendocino counties are ramping up harvest of the Bartlett variety, which comprises the majority of the state’s 9,000 pear acres.

Fruit quality this season has been excellent, with a good range of sizes, said Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Pear Advisory Board. But growers and packers say the crop is also lighter. Total state production is estimated at 156,041 tons this year, down from 170,048 tons in 2015, according to the advisory board.

Pear growers expected a reduced crop this year, after orchards were hard hit last year with the bacterial disease fire blight. That caused growers to remove fruiting wood from their trees, said Robert Arceo, a grower in the river district and field representative for Rivermaid Trading Co., which packs about 50 percent of the state’s pears. He noted that rain and cooler weather during bloom also may have contributed to the lower yields.

The lighter crop has processors and packers competing for the fruit, boosting prices to growers. Zanobini noted canneries are paying 3 percent more than last year’s price, while Arceo said packers are paying an even-higher price in order to secure enough fruit for the fresh market. He estimated growers will average about $430 a ton for their processing pears, depending on fruit quality and size.

“We’re now at the point where it’s balanced between supply and demand, and prices have come up enough to where we can make a living doing this,” said Doug Dickson, who grows Bartlett and Bosc pears in Sacramento County.

Dickson got into the pear business five years ago, just as it was “coming out of the doldrums,” he said. He worked for a pear grower in the 1970s but spent the next 35 years in the grain business. After moving back to the delta, he said he wanted to grow pears—and found that he could because the market was finally stabilizing, with the removal of many pear orchards.

Now that more pear ground has been converted to other crops, Doug Hemly, who grows pears in the river district, said processors have recognized that a reason for the state’s declining pear production was low grower prices.

“I don’t want to see any more acres go out,” said Chris Ruddick, a Mendocino County grower. “I think we’ve hit a pretty good balance.”

But competition from winegrapes continues to eat into pear tonnage, said Rachel Elkins, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Lake and Mendocino counties. She noted that in recent years, big orchards in the delta have been bought by wineries, while in the Marysville area, pear acres came out to make way for kiwifruit.

“When those things happen, you lose a big bunch of fruit at one time,” she said.

Growers have also lost homes for their fruit. Elkins pointed out that shrinking pear acreage in the state correlates to how few processors are left, with Pacific Coast Producers, Del Monte and Seneca Foods being the last three canners.

Packers have also consolidated. In the Lake/Mendocino growing region, Scully Packing in Finley is now the only one packing for the fresh market, after Adobe Creek in Kelseyville closed its packing facility last year.

Availability of harvest employees continues to be a major concern, Scully said, especially for her region, which is now heading into the height of its Bartlett harvest, when demand for crews is highest. At this point, she said she is “getting by,” but noted that crews are picking a lighter crop this year. The situation usually gets tighter when grape harvest begins, she added.

“Labor going into the future continues to be a very big worry for us,” she said. “There’s always the worry now about another year with a heavier crop.”

She noted that younger pickers aren’t coming the way they used to, and her crews are “getting more and more particular about where they’ll go and what they’ll do.”

“This, of course, affects the way growers are able to manage the harvesting of their crop,” Scully said. “Our salvation will be some kind of logical, fair immigration reform, which just seems to be a big political football.”

Ruddick, who is currently harvesting Bartletts, said availability of harvest help has been adequate so far, but as grape harvest picks up, it becomes more of an issue. He noted that in the last several years, as the grape market grew and more vineyards were planted, work crews also got stretched.

“Many years ago, the labor force was a little bit more stable,” he said. “We didn’t have all the earlier varieties of grapes starting up, so everybody just methodically went from one crop to another.”

Another concern for the Lake/Mendocino growing region is how much of its harvest will overlap with the Pacific Northwest pear harvest, which creates a more-challenging market for the Golden State’s later crop. Elkins noted that recent heat in Washington means growers there will be picking early.

“They have tended to squeeze the market window for us earlier and earlier,” she said.

Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Permission for use is granted from the California Farm Bureau Federation.