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When the time is ripe

The trees in Bear Creek Orchards bearing Harry & David's signature Comice pears have dawdled through the spring and summer, stubbornly slow to ripen.

It's almost as if they're waiting for lawyers and money managers to put the final touches on Harry & David Holdings' exit from bankruptcy in Delaware before reaching the picking point.

But it's the cooler, wetter conditions over the past few months that have slowed the development of tree fruits such as pears and peaches, forcing a compressed picking season for Harry & David and other orchardists.

"As far as crop quality, there aren't too many challenges," said Matt Borman, Harry & David's horticulture manager, on Monday. "The biggest concern is the window for harvest. We have a good-size crop we need to get in before fall rains start and that makes us a little nervous."

Coming off two relatively small crops in 2009 and 2010, Bear Creek Orchards figures to produce 17,000 tons of pears this year, up 37 percent from last year's 12,400 tons. Peter Kratz, executive vice president for operations, anticipated that 320 pickers will harvest the company's 1,500 acres of Comice and 70 acres of Bosc trees in the next few weeks, up from 312 pickers a year ago.

The company has long brought seasonal workers to Southern Oregon from Arizona, but Kratz said it expanded recruiting this year to the Fresno, Calif., area.

After comparing notes with the staff at the Oregon State University Experiment Station, Borman expects to begin harvesting Comice pears on Sept. 9 — two-and-a-half weeks later than normal.

"It's difficult to compare over the past 20 years because we've modified some of our harvest practices," Borman said. "But with the cold events, this stands out on its own as a very late season."

Orchard workers have thinned the crop to enhance the size of the remaining fruit.

"At the moment," he said, "we're confident the size will be at least average."

Although pear growers had to battle disease associated with damp conditions, the region has avoided the nasty thunderstorms that produced major crop damage last summer.

"I'm knocking on a very large wood table at the moment," Borman said. "So far, hail has not been an issue. We had one or two storms, but they didn't really come through here."

Pickers began to harvest three of the firm's five peach varieties — Flavorcrest, Red Top and Alstar — last week from a modest 55 acres.

"We're three weeks behind normal for peaches," Borman said. "But the later varieties — Suncrest and Zee Lady — are not so far behind. Normally, we finish the last week of August and we'll be picking into the first week of September."

Many of the peaches are shipped to "Fruit of the Month Club" recipients, although they will be available in single box sales through September.

The company is adding a third shift in its packing house to compensate for the compressed season.

"We're going to crank it up to three shifts so we can turn over more bins during the harvest," Kratz said. "We don't want to run out of bins, that's the challenge for our packing house this year."

At some point later in the harvest, he said, some of the packing house staff will move to other parts of the operation.

Between Medford and Harry and David's Hopewell campus in Ohio, the company will hire 6,000 seasonal workers — a jump from recent years.

"Our advertising (for workers) will be cranked up in the next few weeks for the call center and distribution as well as production," Kratz said.

The Ohio call center was mothballed last year when the company outsourced much of its phone order operations. That move led to a $10 million breech of contract suit by Cincinnati-based Convergys Customer Management Group.

After U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Mary Walrath said she would confirm the company's reorganization plan last week, Kratz said his staff is looking forward to ramping up for the coming sales season.

"Everybody is pleased that we had that support," he said. "I think the morale was doing well, knowing we had a good financial plan. But it's been good to get that confirmation."

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

Matt Borman, manager of Horticulture Technologies at Harry & David, checks the ripeness of fruit Monday in a peach orchard outside of Talent. Thanks to a wet spring and mild summer, peaches and pears are weeks behind schedule, forcing a compressed picking season. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore