Under a shroud of incessant smoke, Rogue Valley orchardists began an early harvest this week.

Under a shroud of incessant smoke, Rogue Valley orchardists began an early harvest this week.

Weeks of temperatures in the 90s and 100s accelerated ripening before lightning ignited a series of fires in Douglas and Josephine counties two weeks ago. Since then, smoke has been ever-present.

Talent orchardist Ron Meyer, whose pears are shipped as far as Russia, said the smoke was the worst he's seen during his 60 pear harvests.

"The Biscuit fire is next as far as pollution," he said. "But I saw no problems with the pears that year and I really don't anticipate any now. Trees take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, they act as air scrubbers."

Picking began about a week earlier than normal. Red varieties, including Starkrimson, were first off the trees, and many growers have moved on to Bartletts.

It hasn't necessarily been a pleasant task.

"Anybody working outside right now is dealing with fluctuating air quality," said Matt Borman, orchards director for Harry & David's Bear Creek Orchards and 1,600-plus acres of Comice and Bosc pears.

Orchard hands have been offered masks to mitigate the smoke, he said.

"A few guys opted to stay home on the worst days, but as a general rule they've been coming to work."

Mike Naumes, president of Naumes Inc. in Medford, whose multistate operation works 1,700 acres in the Rogue Valley, said his crews begin at daylight and wrap up around 2:30 to 3 p.m.

"Smoke is hard on the workers, but according to the doctors, it just permeates the masks," he said.

Late Wednesday, there was a new twist — thunderstorms the National Weather Service said produced quarter-sized hail.

Hail has been absent this spring and summer — a good thing as far as orchardists are concerned.

"We're very nervous any time there are thunderstorms coming through, and we certainly don't need hail at this point," Naumes said. "The finish on the pears is extraordinary this year."

Crews at Harry & David's Bear Creek Orchards began picking peaches on July 19. However, the Comice pears, branded Royal Riviera by the company, aren't quite ready to harvest.

"We use physiological triggers," said Borman. "When the fruit gets to a certain maturity to where we can store it and ship it, then it's ready."

As many as 250 sample pears are pressure tested throughout the valley to determine ripeness. A typical sample includes 10 pears from an area no larger than 20 acres.

"We started testing Monday," Borman said. "At this point we don't know when we'll start yet, but the projections are three to five days earlier than normal. We know we're ahead of schedule, but not how far ahead of schedule."

Eventually Bear Creek Orchards will send 300 to 450 pickers into its blocks around the valley.

"We started off with rain during bloom time, and there was some early russeting for Comice," Borman said.

"But overall the crop looks strong and we're expecting tonnage above our 16,000-ton average."

Growers always are hopeful for larger fruit size and clean finishes, and the smoke may have been helpful in some ways.

"If anything, the smoke kind of blocked out some of the sun and has given fruit some relief," said Doug Lowry, the chief executive officer at Associated Fruit, which is working 700 acres. "I don't see any negative affect. I think we'll be getting a good price, particularly for bigger fruit."

The next two months will tell.

"We anticipate having a good marketing year," Lowry said. "But the task now is to get the crop into the shed."

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