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Orchardists predict a good harvest of Rogue Valley PEARS

PHOENIX ­ Juan Balvidares reached up, measured a full, purple pear,and tore it from the branch. It joined a few dozen in his bag.

He's been doing this for three years, and he said this is probably thebest crop he's seen.

Tan grande, (They're so big) he said.

Balvidares was picking red blush pears at a Naumes Inc. orchard Tuesdayfor the first day this season. Harvest of most other pear varieties suchas Bosc won't start for a few weeks.

And, although many pear people caution it's too early to tell, some arepredicting a great year for pears.

Our pears are as good as they ever get, said Ron Meyer, aTalent orchardist. I'm thrilled about the quality of our pears.

The Oregon, Washington and California Pear Bureau estimated in May thatthe Northwest would produce a record of nearly 18 million boxes of pears.About 100 pears fit in each box.

That estimate said Oregon could produce more than 7 million boxes. Almost1.5 million of those could come from Medford.

The Rogue Valley's pear industry is Jackson County's largest agriculturecrop, bringing in $40 million to $60 million annually. There are about 9,000acres of pear orchards in the valley.

Everything is falling into place, said Dan Hull, vice presidentof the Fruit Growers League of Jackson County. We've had really apretty good year.

That year included a long dry spell shortly after the pear trees bloomedthat allowed the young pears to thrive.

The New Year's floods didn't affect many pear orchards, but late frostdid, said Sue Naumes, owner of Naumes Inc. She isn't as optimistic aboutthis year's crop.

Valley pears suffered through seven straight nights of frost in April,she said. Many trees are producing smaller pears than orchardists expectedbecause of that, she said.

Early on, the size looked good, she said. But thingskind of stalled. We've seen better ­ none of us is ecstatic.

And the greatest threat to pears still looms on the horizon. Summer thunderstormsoften carry hail that can destroy entire pear crops, said David Sugar, apear researcher with the Oregon State University Agricultural ExperimentStation.

Hail can, in just a few minutes, wipe out everything, hesaid. Right now, that's the only serious risk between now and a goodharvest.

But that's not the only risk pear growers face this season. Too manypears can bloat the market, driving prices down and hurting pear harvesters.

That's what happened in 1994, Meyer said. The Northwest produced 16 millionboxes of pears that year. Pear quality was probably the best in a decade,he said.

But prices plummeted because of the volume, and some small farmers didn'thave big enough crops to keep up.

Growers lost up to $1,000 an acre, Meyer said. Thequestion is, have we done enough to market this big a crop?

But Maggie Andre, spokeswoman for the pear bureau, said the pear markethas kept up with the crop over the past few years. Although the bureau isforecasting a record year, production shouldn't be too far beyond demand,she said.

I think it'll be readily absorbed, she said. It probablywill be a very good year for growers.

It should also be a good year for pear eaters, Sugar said. The pearsin Balvidares' bag were plump and ripe. That's the kind of pear people canexpect on their plates, Sugar said.

The crops look very nice ­ good quality, good volume,he said. It looks excellent so far.

Juan Balvidares, of Oaxaca, Mexico, picks red blush pears in a Naumes orchard along Carpenter Hill road near Phoenix Tuesday. Growers expect a bountiful harvest. - Photo by Jim Craven</P