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Is there a future in farming?

Terry Helfrich is a field manager for a pear company. So what's he doing standing in a former pear orchard that's now filled with tomatoes, corn, bell peppers, peaches, apples, plums and cherries?

"I am an orchardist, but now I'm a farmer," said Helfrich, who works for Southern Oregon Sales, a pear-packing cooperative.

As growers continue to struggle through a rough economy, Helfrich said, SOS is experimenting with new crops so it won't be as reliant on the Rogue Valley's most famous fruit.

His 40-acre patch is an incubator to test how well certain plants grow and sell locally.

"To keep up with this economy, you can't continue to do the same thing," he said.

In recent years, the pear industry has been hard-hit by changing markets, not to mention late frosts, cool weather, pests and blight. Those factors and others have combined to cut production in some orchards by 50 percent this summer.

Large growers such as Harry & David, Associated Fruit and Naumes are strapped for cash and have been unsuccessful in leveraging their vast landholdings to raise money from loans. They have cut the number of acres producing pears over the years, though the amount of pears has remained about the same because of improved growing techniques.

Pears account for 35 percent of the total agricultural industry in Jackson County, compared with 51 percent 25 years ago, while vineyards and small farms have experienced substantial growth.

Pressured by the tough times, fruit growers and other farmers are looking at new ways to improve their bottom line.

Helfrich thinks the time is ripe to bring a whole range of seasonal fruits and vegetables to local consumers as more emphasis is placed on local products and sustainable agriculture.

By mixing fruits and vegetables into a business long dominated by one fruit, Helfrich said, SOS hopes to start earning money earlier in the season, rather than relying solely on the pear harvest in the fall.

Producing new crops is one thing, but getting them to market, particularly to local consumers, can be tricky. Some supermarket chains are reluctant to carry merchandise not provided by large distributors.

Anne Root, owner of EdenVale Winery, said that while the valley produces a significant amount of agricultural products, they aren't widely available in many local supermarkets.

She said the dearth of outlets that carry any of the more than 500 local wine labels is a good example of how far the area needs to go to promote the Rogue Valley's bountiful products.

Even at the few supermarkets that support local wines, she said, you'd be lucky to find 50 Southern Oregon wine labels represented.

"There are significant barriers to easier access to local products," she said.

Many larger markets have a distribution network that doesn't include local products. Many restaurants also don't feature extensive lists of local wines, she said.

"If I had my dream come true, there would be more promotion of local foods and products," she said. "If everybody in town would buy local wine, we would have a stronger wine business."

With the economy stalled, Root said, she's also finding stiff competition on the global wine stage. An Argentinian wine can cost as little as $6 a bottle, while Root said her production costs for a similar bottle run about $8.

Farmer's markets, fruit and vegetable stands and a few grocery stores offer local outlets for fruits and vegetables, but creating a consistent demand in the Rogue Valley for Rogue Valley products will require something of a sea change, Root said.

Not everyone is convinced that diversification is necessary. While niche farms, speciality products and local branding are gaining ground, large pear growers such as Associated Fruit don't have big plans to diversify their product lines.

Doug Lowry, vice president of operations for Associated Fruit, said his operation is geared toward pear production that supports up to 400 employees during the peak season.

He said his company will continue to focus on the fruit that has sustained his family for more than 100 years.

"We've weathered other storms in the past," he said.

But money is extremely tight now and loans are difficult for his business to come by. Like other large orchardists, Associated Fruit finds itself land-rich and cash-strapped.

"We've definitely had a hard time," he said. "State land-use laws haven't been kind to us."

Associated Fruit, Naumes and Harry & David have been unsuccessful so far in convincing the state to allow them to open up 1,000 acres to potential development by sidestepping Oregon's land-use laws protecting farmland.

Orchardists say if they had the opportunity to turn agricultural land into residential developments, the value of their holdings would increase, which in turn would give them greater flexibility in raising capital to sustain their struggling operations. They say orchardists traditionally have sold off land near cities and used some of the money to buy land further out.

Land-use advocates, however, say those options are increasingly limited as the area grows and that turning over rural land for urban uses only encourages sprawl.

Lowry said Associated Fruit has explored other options, including peaches and plums, but pears remain the most popular item.

A small fruit stand outside the packing house only provides a small volume of the overall sales. "It's just a blip," he said.

But other growers such as Helfrich said the demand for an assortment of local fruits and vegetables has been growing. At a fruit stand SOS runs on Stewart Avenue, he said local customers favor Rogue Valley-grown products, often disdaining those from California.

"I can see a change that people are really interested in local produce," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

Terry Helfrich stands in a row of corn off Voorhies Road, where the pear-packing company he works for is now experimenting with a variety of other crops in an effort to diversify and strengthen its operations.