The number one fruit crop grown in Oregon is pears.
In fact nationally, the state is second only to Washington in pear production, with over a billion pears harvested in Oregon each year. But like many agricultural commodities, the pear industry is changing. Pete Springer reports.
The majority of fresh Oregon pears are grown in the Hood River Valley.
Scott Webster is the president of The Fruit Company, located in the heart of the valley.
Scott Webster: “In 1900, this valley was mostly strawberries. And then 50 years later, in 1950, the valley was 80-percent apples. And then in 2000, it was 90-percent pears.”
Webster’s grandpa was part of that shift from apples to pears. He started growing pears on a Hood River orchard in 1942.
Webster and his brother Addison eventually took over the orchard in the 90’s. But prices for fresh pears had dropped.
Scott Webster: “So it wasn’t really profitable and when we started it, it was coming on two years where the fruit industry was very depressed. In fact, in '96, we all lost money and at that time, my brother and I were thinking, ‘what else can we do here because this is not looking bright?’”
So Webster and his brother bought a massive old warehouse near their orchard and created The Fruit Company.
They still sell around 100,000 boxes of pears to grocery stores and processors each year, but their main business now is selling gift boxes.
Ironically, only about five-percent of the pears they grow end up in those gift boxes, but those gift boxes are what makes the company money.
Scott Webster: “So they get packed down there, they get kitted there, then they get packed and then they go down to here, and this is where the gift actually gets put in the shipper box.”
The Fruit Company employs about three dozen workers year round, and 150 people during the holiday season when their mail order business booms.
They still use the old 1940’s conveyor belt system that came with the warehouse.
Scott Webster “It works great. Things don’t really fall off. I mean, we don’t have a lot of zig zags, you know it’s pretty much straight lines, these corners have these little barriers so that they don’t fall off the side.”
But one aspect of business that has changed is transportation. Pears used to be shipped from Hood River by train and there’s even a rail loading dock attached to The Fruit Company warehouse.
But these days shipping is done by truck.
The Fruit Company can easily fill a FedEx semi truck daily with gift box orders — and several semis during the holiday season.
Webster estimates that his company spends one out of every five dollars on shipping and transportation.
But like any business, there are risks.
Scott Webster “The challenge with orchards, unlike ground crops, is you have a five to eight year window before you’re in full production, so it’s really hard to guesstimate, to forecast what the prices are going to be eight years from now, so it’s, you know, it’s a risky business.”
There’s also disease and pests like coddling moth and fungus to deal with.
And freezing temperatures.
From the roof of the warehouse, you can see surrounding pear orchards, all with massive windmill-like fans in them.
Scott Webster: “What the fans do is on a night where you have 32 degrees F weather, and you’re right on that borderline of damaging the fruit or not, we turn the fans on and that takes that warmer air above and pushes it down”
But most of the time, conditions in certain areas of the northwest are perfect for pears.
Kevin Moffit: “Cool nights, warm days
Kevin Moffitt is the president of the Pear Bureau, a company that markets fresh Oregon and Washington pears.
Kevin Moffit: “Actually a lot of this volcanic soil that we have here in the Pacific Northwest has helped from the nutrients that the soil brings.”
Moffit says areas around Hood River and Medford are where most of Oregon’s pear orchards are located.
But he adds that only about two percent of the pears grown in Oregon are consumed here.
Kevin Moffit: “One of the new markets we have most recently is India is becoming quite an interesting market for Oregon pears. But also South America, some of the Asian markets like Taiwan and Singapore."
Moffit says Oregon pears are shipped to 36 countries around the world. But he says pear growers have to constantly find new ways to sell their fruit in order to remain competitive.
Take the Hood River grower who sells pear brandy.
Kevin Moffit “They actually tie bottles onto the pear tree in the spring, around a pear and the pear grows up inside the bottle.”
But Moffit says the main shift for growers is thinking about marketing.
Kevin Moffit “They are finding ways that are unique to the valley and drawing people in — the same thing’s happening in Medford too — you have harvest festivals and just ways to bring urban populations into the rural side and connect them to the farms and where their food comes from.”
Hood River pear grower Scott Webster agrees. He says the future of pears is in finding new ways to market them, such as in gift baskets.
Scott Webster “That’s our goal here — I mean our goal is really to get that recipient — your loved one — to call you immediately upon receiving that gift, and thank you profusely for how great that gift was.”
Webster says he’s noticed more and more growers in Hood River turning to wine grapes as well.
In fact there’s a new vineyard right next to his warehouse. And Webster says he’s working with the county to turn part of his warehouse into a history museum.
The goal is to get tourists to visit the winery, the museum, and then to buy some fruit gift boxes.
Agricultural experts such as the Pear Bureau’s Kevin Moffit call this diversifying your “crop portfolio”.
Kevin Moffit “Like somebody has a 401K portfolio, stock portfolio, you really need to be diversified so if one crop doesn’t do so well, you’ve got some cushion on the other side.”
It all adds up to a big shift from the days when growers simply picked pears and sold them wholesale.