About this time every year, Harry & David runs out of its locally grown signature Royal Riviera brand Comice pears.

About this time every year, Harry & David runs out of its locally grown signature Royal Riviera brand Comice pears.

For decades that meant months passed before the Medford gourmet food and gift company could once again offer pears to its mail-order customers. Today, the gap is usually only two to three weeks before the shipments resume. But while the fruit baskets sent out in midwinter will still include Comice pears, they're far from locally grown.

Harry & David turned to growers in Chile and New Zealand in the early 1990s, seeking to capitalize on the popularity of its high-end fruit offerings.

"Without the Southern Hemisphere we would have limited offerings at certain times of the year," said Pete Kratz, the company's chief operations officer, who spent several days in Chile last month, sizing up the latest crop. "We would only have Comice pears available from September through February."

The ability to import from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and other countries fills a void and provides lots of opportunity. Harry & David expects to import 2.5 million pounds of fruit from Chile this year alone, with pears accounting for just over half of the total.

In perspective, it's a smattering of what Harry & David produces or buys stateside and a fraction of what comes north from Chile. Last year, Chile exported $3.6 billion in fresh fruit, some 2.6 million tons, to the U.S., led by grapes, apples and blueberries, according to the Fruit Growers Federation of Chile.

By 1999 South American growers were planting orchards with Harry & David in mind. Because the Medford company committed to buying specific quality Comice pears, three major growers continued to plant acreage between 2004 and 2007 with some of those orchards just now beginning to produce.

The combination of a late Rogue Valley harvest last fall and an early one in Chile meant for the first time in years there wasn't a gap between north and south hemisphere pears. The first Chilean pears arrive two to three weeks ahead of those from New Zealand.

Comice pears aren't suited for growth just anywhere, said David Sugar, a horticulture professor at the Oregon State University Extension Service office in Medford, has worked with growers and food industry representatives in Chile and Argentina and keeps in contact with former students in both countries.

"Worldwide, commercial pears are mostly grown in relatively dry interior valleys like ours," Sugar said. "Chile has one huge central valley (betweeen the Pacific and Andes). It tends to be a little more humid and has a little more rainfall than us, so they tend to get a little more russet on the pears."

His research has helped growers in Chile improve pear appearance, storage life and eating quality.

"With Comice, in particular, five months is about as long as you can hold them in storage," Sugar said. "To provide a steady supply, the six-month stagger between southern and northern hemispheres is very useful."

One thing Chilean pear growers do differently from those in the Rogue Valley, Kratz said, is picking through orchards two or three times, allowing some of the smaller fruit to gain size and increasing a tree's yield.

"The amount of labor input would be pretty significant for us to do that," Kratz said. "It's much more labor intensive to operate. When we think everything is ready we go in there and pick the whole tree at one time."

Kratz said his visit had a three-fold purpose: Checking quality, building relationships and seeing what's new with products, ownership and packing houses.

"There have been major changes in the past three years," he said. "It's becoming more vertically integrated in Chile to where more growers own packing houses and own their own exports companies. Before, there might have been three separate entities."

Economic conditions, both in Chile and the United States, have resulted in consolidations and changing ownerships, Kratz said. He said one Chilean grower told him that "when the U.S. sneezes, Chile gets a cold."

Growers, Kratz said, are naturally concerned that Harry & David is committed to buying their fruit and understand the gift company wants superior quality.

"We're going to want the best of the best," Kratz said, "and there might be 3 to 5 percent of the fruit picked that goes into a Harry & David box."

South American growers pack the pears while still in the orchard, cutting down handling time. The pears, packed in tissue paper and protected by foam, go from orchards to storage at 31 degrees and remain at that temperature until arriving in Medford. They are trucked to the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, about 75 miles northwest of Santiago, the capital city.

"We bring it out, sort it and put it back in cold storage here," Kratz said. "It's not out of the cold storage more than 45 minutes."

So far, six or seven containers containing 2,000 boxes have arrived following a 14-day boat trip, two to thee days at U.S. Customs in Long Beach and another two on the freeway.

The company set an 85 percent gift-grade standard for the Chilean growers. If the standard is exceeded once the fruit arrives in Medford, the growers collect on incentives. If it falls below, payments fall.

The first containers reaching Harry & David were in the mid-to-high-90s, Kratz said, making participants in both hemispheres happy.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.