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MailTribune.com
  • Rogue Valley's pear harvest is on track

    August heat spell brought fruit back to 'normal' schedule; picking may end in early October
  • Talk of a late pear harvest dissipated during an August heat spell that pushed Rogue Valley pear orchards back on a "normal" schedule.
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  • Talk of a late pear harvest dissipated during an August heat spell that pushed Rogue Valley pear orchards back on a "normal" schedule.
    Now, Matt Borman, who oversees nearly 1,700 acres of Royal Riviera brand Comice pears for Harry & David, wants to make sure no pear is left behind before a change of seasons brings rain.
    "My hope is that we're finishing up early in the first week of October," Borman said Tuesday afternoon. "There's potential wet weather in October, and we don't want to be picking then. So we're not going to go slow and take a chance. At the moment, the next three-week projection looks pretty good. Beyond that, it's a guessing game, and I won't be comfortable until it's all in the barn."
    Actually, the pears are headed to cold-storage warehouses, rather than barns, but you get the idea.
    In a year when hailstorms were relatively rare, one Bear Creek Orchards block in Central Point took a hit in mid-July.
    "The thing about hail is that it can happen in little pockets," Borman said. "It was one of those late storms that peppered the fruit and the hail was large enough to leave some marks; it was that orchard's turn."
    Rogue Valley growers began harvesting red pears in mid-August and began picking Comice blocks just before the holiday weekend. That wasn't what a lot of growers expected after a long, wet spring — until seven days of triple-digit temperatures turned things around.
    "From a horticulture standpoint," Borman said, "heavy heat sometimes slow things down, but warm nights are actually beneficial."
    Some farmers found their trees extra thirsty because of the sustained hot spell.
    "That didn't help," said Terry Light of Hillcrest Orchards in the east Medford foothills. "We did a lot of irrigating."
    Following a bumper 2011 crop, growers across the Pacific Northwest estimated about a 15 percent reduction in tonnage this year. Fruit size, on the other hand, has been better.
    "We didn't see frost damage in the spring, and the fruit is particularly clean this year," said Doug Lowry of Associated Fruit.
    "What we've got is just a good-looking piece of fruit. Last year, we had a late spring with cold weather, and the fruit never caught up and the shape wasn't as nice."
    Harry & David Chief Operations Officer Pete Kratz said bulk tonnage will be down, but will be well within the gift and gourmet food company's needs.
    "We're projecting we'll hit the amount of pears to support the plans we had in place," Kratz said.
    Harvest at Bear Creek Orchards began with about 200 people picking last Friday. Borman said the number swelled to more than 330 on Tuesday — up from a year ago.
    While Harry & David has long recruited seasonal workers from out of the area, over the years it has kept on orchard workers in other capacities after the harvest.
    "At this point, we're staffed to our expectations," Borman said. "We communicate with our employees and potential employees early in the summer and are able to get everybody we needed."
    Lowry said Associated Fruit has 50 to 60 people involved in the harvest of 500 acres.
    "Oftentimes we are dealing with people traveling up the I-5 corridor," Lowry said. "Some work for the Forest Service fighting fires, or there might be a good crop in California that keeps them there longer."
    Small growers, however, can struggle to find enough help at harvest time.
    Gary Hubler found himself picking 10 acres in six hours with the help of two people.
    "It's getting tougher and tougher to find labor," said the owner of Hubler Orchards. "It sure puts us in a bind."
    Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.
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