Large harvest underway for Washington pears

Pear tree
Harvest is underway for Washington pears. Photo: Max Pixel.

While Washington is known for its apples, pears are also a vital part of the state’s economy and offer a unique opportunity for agricultural businesses and growers to sell these two fruits together to best meet consumer demands.

Washington pears make up approximately 60 percent of the fresh pears sold in the U.S. In 2016, pears were the 10th largest agricultural commodity and the state ranked first in the nation for producing fresh pears.

The state has two major growing areas: Wenatchee Valley, where the majority are grown, and Yakima.

The quality of Washington pears is similar to those from California and Oregon, and fruit grown on the southern side of the states is harvested the earliest. Migrant pickers typically travel up to the Pacific Northwest from California to follow the fruit as it becomes ready to harvest.

“When the harvest comes, it comes fast,” Kathy Stephenson, Director of Marketing Communications for Pear Bureau Northwest (PBN), told Lens.

Once the harvest hits, there is a two-week window for picking.

“When the pear is ready to be picked, we need those workers here and we need folks on the ground because everything is hand-picked.”

About 30 to 40 percent of the pear crop grown in Washington and Oregon is exported depending on the year and strength of the dollar. Mexico and Canada are the Pacific Northwest’s two largest pear export markets, followed by Asia and the Middle East. Domestically, the pear crop is often purchased alongside apples for bundled transport.

PBN anticipates this upcoming harvest will be 26 percent larger than last year’s and will result in 20.5 million boxes of fresh pears. The boxes weigh 44 pounds each and cost between $25 and $35.

In 2017, Washington’s pear production was valued at $246 million. 25 percent of the total volume went to the canned pear industry.

The current trade war between the U.S. and its export markets have affected several agricultural products such as apples, however Stephenson said pear market has been unaffected for now.

“Tariffs don’t affect the harvest or how we are collecting the fruit. When we start shipping there might be a problem. If tariffs rise in main export countries we could run into an issue where we can’t sell as much because the price goes up too high for the consumer.”

Stephenson added that the industry has spent decades to develop relationships in those markets, and tariffs could make it difficult to continue selling to those countries.

Luckily, pears are not currently on the  tariff list for Canada or Mexico, however China’s levies on U.S. pears are expected to affect the industry by $1.4 to $2 million.

Washington pear growers rely heavily on workers living within the communities or those who migrate from the south to support the harvest. Some migrant workers face issues coming back because of immigration challenges.

“We haven’t heard that too many people aren’t getting their crop picked, but it is keeping growers up at night, there isn’t any doubt about that,” said Stephenson.

Stemilt Growers is a fruit growing, packing and shipping business based in Wenatchee which began harvesting pears two weeks ago. Roger Pepperl, Marketing Director for the business, told Lens that the company grows pears which are packed in Wenatchee and Peshastin.

Pepperl said pears are primarily sold alongside other fruit such as apples. 25 years ago, some growers only sold pears, however grocery stores became more efficient with their purchases and preferred to bundle different fruits together.

“What happened was people around the United States who bought apples also wanted to buy pears from the same person, because they could load the fruit in the same truck …and they both were similar enough where they would typically end up on the same retail shelf.”

“The pear became an integral part of what a produce buyer at a grocery store might expect. They create a one-stop shopping business you need for apples and pears.”

The company constantly monitors the controlled atmosphere storage rooms where the pears are kept in a “sleeping” state because fruit could stay in cool storage for 10 to 11 months before they are shipped out.

Timing is important for the success of the pear harvest, so the company places extra emphasis on keeping the produce safe as it travels via trucks or containers because molds and funguses can ruin the fruit.

“There are so many different things…it can become the weak link in the chain to have these challenges and can be detrimental to your whole season.”

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