MEDFORD — The smallest pear region on the West Coast, Medford, has stabilized and may be poised for a slight comeback after dropping nearly 28 percent in production over the past five years, industry sources say.
New packing and marketing alliances in Medford and between it and Hood River and California are working, and Medford acreage may even expand, said Mike Naumes, president and CEO of Naumes Inc., Medford's largest pear company.
The West Coast pear industry did well this past year, and Medford, stabilized with fewer players, has "good chances of making it for the long haul," said Scott Martinez, a partner in Associated Fruit Co. in Medford and a sales representative for Rivermaid Trading Co. in Lodi, Calif.
The acreage that remains in Medford, about 6,000 acres, is younger and better producing, positioning growers for success, Martinez said.
Bear Creek, the parent company of Harry & David, is considering expanding orchards to grow more comice pears for gift packs, Naumes said.
His company is retrofitting a third packing line in the Southern Oregon Sales plant it is leasing.
"We would like to pack more fruit, but we pack the vast majority of the fruit in the valley right now," Naumes said.
Medford's pear production has declined with residential development replacing orchards, the recession, a bad spring frost in 2010 and the area's remoteness from other pear regions.
The area largely lost its uniqueness in specialty varieties, and growers found it harder to get financing. The largest pressure has been the added cost of positioning pears for distribution, and per-acre yield seemed lower in Medford than other regions, Martinez said.
The area produced 1.1 million of the 44.5-pound boxes of pears in 2008 and 815,000 in 2012, according to The Pear Bureau Northwest in Portland.
"There has been a lot of consolidation with packing houses closing and some mergers," said Kevin Moffitt, Pear Bureau president. "I think the situation has stabilized. However, they continue to have housing pressures."
More retailers want mixed truckloads of several varieties of apples and pears, making it hard for pear-only Medford to compete with apple-pear regions around Hood River, Yakima and Wenatchee, Wash., and California, Moffitt said.
Medford's advantage of natural brown russet on Bosc has lessened with growth of golden russet Bosc in other districts, Naumes said.
But Medford remains the best climate for comice, which Harry & David has capitalized on, he said.
Naumes, whose company packs 600,000 to 700,000 boxes of Medford pears annually, believes Medford production will stabilize at 800,000 to 1 million boxes compared with much larger volumes from the other districts.
He points out The Pear Bureau numbers do not include some 200,000 to 300,000 boxes of pears Bear Creek produces annually for Harry & David gift packs.
In 2011, Naumes packed its own fruit and that of Meyer Orchards. It added Associated Fruit and Southern Oregon Sales to do almost all the area's packing. For the first time, Medford pears were marketed by a California company when Rivermaid entered an agreement with Associated.
Now Associated has regained its footing and taken back two orchards it leased to Naumes and is selling fruit through Rivermaid and Diamond Fruit in Hood River.
Sam Dinsdale, an Eastern Oregon rancher, bought 200 acres of Associated orchards and leased Associated's packing line this past season, Naumes said.
Naumes packs and markets fruit directly from Medford, but also markets some through its Marysville, Calif., operation and with marketing partner Wawona in Cutler, Calif.
Naumes' company packs about 500,000 boxes of pears and 300,000 boxes of cherries annually in Marysville. The company produces 400,000 boxes of apples and pears and 50,000 boxes of cherries annually from its orchards near Chelan and Pateros, Wash., that is packed and sold through Washington companies.
D' Anjou and Bartlett are in full bloom now in Medford, and Bosc and comice are just coming in. April is critical for frost, Naumes said, but so far it looks like good bud set.