Six harvesting teams have methodically worked their way through 1,600 acres of Bear Creek Orchards' pear trees in recent weeks, from the Table Rocks to the outer limits of Ashland. But while the crews have moved quickly, the real trick is in avoiding damage to the value-added crop that fuels the company's bottom line.
True to the spring Northwest Pear Bureau predictions, the harvest has been a generous one in fruit size and tonnage. But, of the 16,500 tons Harry & David will harvest, less than 50 percent will earn the U.S. No. 1 quality rating that is critical to the company's mail-order business.
So the pickers make sure the Royal Riviera Comice pears live up their moniker, avoiding bumps and bruises while the fruit takes an air-cushioned ride to the warehouse.
Pears that hit the ground stay there, per food handling regulations, said Tom Forsythe, senior vice president for production and orchards.
Scratches, gouges and bruises all disqualify the pears from entering gift packs and Fruit of the Month Club orders, and are summarily dispatched to the juice factory.
"We're selling a gift-quality pear and our pears need to be distinguished above all the rest," Forsythe said. "If we have a puncture in the field, warehouse or packing lines they can't be considered for gifts."
Old-school wooden bins and next-generation plastic half-bins are carefully filled by pickers, often wearing gloves to protect the fruit from fingernail cuts. Picking pouches worn on the front are stuffed at the rate of 20 pears per minute, then emptied into bins stashed between orchard rows.
"One of the things about the Comice that makes it difficult to pick is the stem, (because it is) short and stout," said Forsythe holding up a healthy piece of fruit. "If the guys go too quickly and break this and create a sharp point on it — as you watch them unload the bags, these pears roll. If they roll with a sharp stem, they puncture the pear in front of them and it becomes of little or no value to us."
The skillful artistry comes in transferring the pears from pouch to bin.
"They are designed to employ from the bottom," Forsythe said. "You can imagine what would happen if you were simply dumping pears into a bin. There is a long flap, allowing it to open from the bottom rather than be dumped. It was adopted quite a while back and refined over the years. The flap has been lengthened and it's made from a different material so it doesn't scuff the pears."
In the early 2000s, Harry & David acquired a Dutch-made Pluk-O-Trak and leased four more to aid in harvesting Kirtland Orchard, near the Rogue River. The self-propelled Pluk-O-Trak had six cushioned platforms and eight conveyor arms feeding a central conveyor that filled a rotating bin. They can cost up to $60,000, depending on their size. But they were later deemed impractical and the company sold its model to a Washington apple grower.
The hands-on approach and simpler technology developed in the last century may be more pedestrian but it safeguards the pears from damage and protects their consumer value.
Aging orchards produce fewer tons and quality, said orchard director Matt Borman.
"Depending on the orchard's age and location," he said. "You can get a 55 to 60 percent (gift grade) pack-out, while at other locations it might be 39 or 40 percent. Some years, the rate will vary a couple percent."
Once the pears reach the packing house, the bins are submerged in a tank with sodium added to the water so the fruit rises and bobs toward the conveyor line where an optical sorter makes the initial decision on each pear's fate. After that, Forsythe said, sorting goes on until the pears are ready to be shipped.
"There are other quality checks down the line," he said. "Every packer inspects the pears before they let them go."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness.