Southern Oregon pear growers began picking several weeks ago, but with the shift to fall and winter varieties, it means the Rogue Valley's biggest player is joining the harvest.

Southern Oregon pear growers began picking several weeks ago, but with the shift to fall and winter varieties, it means the Rogue Valley's biggest player is joining the harvest.

Harry and David Holdings' Bear Creek Orchards unit began its monthlong harvest Monday, marking the start of an annual ritual going back nearly a century.

"We estimate, between our Royal Riviera (Comice) and Bosc varieties, we'll harvest 17,000 tons in the next 28 working days," said Bill Ihle, Harry and David's senior vice president for communications. "But to put it into perspective, less than 1,000 tons will be Bosc."

A dry spring coupled with a mild summer provided optimum growing conditions for Bear Creek Orchards' 2,000 acres of pears.

"The weather we've had is more like you see in the Napa wine area," Ihle said. "It's been conducive to a crop quality that is one of the best in years. We've had warm, but not unbearably hot, days so our pears haven't got sunburned. There's been a blending of the bright green and red."

While growers throughout the West have dealt with labor issues in their fields and orchards, Ihle said his company was in good shape.

"We have hired 404 harvest pickers, exactly where we were in the past," Ihle said. "Finding pickers has not been a problem; we have a high degree of workers return year after year. I think it's by virtue of how well we take care of them."

Picking six days a week, crews will harvest roughly 2.5 million of the 65 million pears growing on the company's pear blocks, Ihle said.

Ultimately, many of the pears will be included in Harry and David gift packs and Fruit of the Month Club offerings.

"Every piece is hand-checked four to five times before it goes in a gift basket," Ihle said.

The start of harvest signals the beginning of an intense four-month haul that generates a hefty portion of Harry and David's annual revenue. Last year, for example, Harry and David saw $389 million in sales during the three months before Christmas — far and away the company's biggest quarter.

"We have enough pear pickers," Ihle said. "But we're still hiring in our call center, distribution and manufacturing areas. Our jobs always provide spending money for a number of people in the valley."

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