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Bear Creek tries big-tent technology on pear orchard

PHOENIX -- Orchardist Ron Henri snaps a dead twig from the branch of a Comice pear tree as a gust of wind flutters the translucent black cloth overhead.

As harvest approaches, this area has a history of heavy winds from the east that will knock the fruit on the ground, the Bear Creek Corp. vice president says, sweeping a hand to embrace the 250-acre Oregon Orchard on Carpenter Hill Road.

The last two years this orchard was wiped out. We obviously can't leave ourselves exposed to it.

Last year's wipeout destroyed about 15 percent of the Rogue Valley's pear crop, but six acres of Oregon Orchard's trees rode out the storm without losing a pear. Not because the furious hail storm skipped over that patch of ground. And not because the fierce wind detoured past those rows of trees.

What saved that fruit was a huge shade-cloth tent with a retractable roof erected last June. It proved sturdy enough to withstand a late summer storm with golf ball-sized hail that damaged homes and dented cars.

As an experimental technology in the initial stages of field testing, Bear Creek's new weather barrier passed its first test. But with the exception of a similar structure planned for a Bear Creek orchard between Phoenix and Talent, such tents aren't expected to multiply across the Rogue Valley anytime soon.

For one thing, Henri says, their overall usefulness remains unproven. While the upside appears to be protection against damage from hail, wind, sun and -- within limits -- frost, there are bound to be downsides. For instance, the closed tent creates a high-humidity micro-climate that breeds disease.

For another thing, Henri says, even if mass production lowered the cost dramatically, the tents would remain too expensive for most local pear growers. He declined to say how much the tent cost.

Oregon State University horticulturalist David Sugar, of the Southern Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, agrees.

Growing pears for gift pack opens a lot more opportunities for applying costly technologies than what we call growing for bulk shipment, he says. Under partial shade, it seems the surface finish of the Comice pear is a little finer than if it's exposed to full sunlight. That's subtlety that the gift pack industry can probably benefit from more than many of the others.

Hail storms aren't subtle, and neither is their effect on the bottom line. For that reason, some local experts say any new farm technology that proves cost-effective will eventually find its way onto local orchards.

There's no question but that the damage by hail is extremely serious when we suffer it, says Dan Hull of the Fruit Growers League of Jackson County. We will do the things that will help us farm the land and produce a better crop. If it will make it more profitable, it certainly will catch on.

Screens and tents have been used to protect agricultural crops elsewhere in the world, but the huge Bear Creek tent is the first of its kind in the Rogue Valley.

Henri isn't making any guesses about whether Bear Creek's experiment will eventually produce a new cost-effective technology for pear growers in the Rogue Valley. But he's clearly excited about the possibilities of the roughly 250-by-1,000-foot tent.

In the summer, the leaves will be rattling the fruit on the outside, he says. In here it's calm and there are these big waves of wind blowing over the top.

And for perhaps the first time in this farmer's working life, he discovered an upside to experiencing a furious storm at harvest time.

We've been emboldened by our first year. The bad news is that we had a hail storm that wiped out the area, he says. And the good news is that we had a hail storm that wiped out the area.

Ron Henri, Bear Creek Corp. vice president, says this experimental covering protects pear trees from wind, hail and temperature changes. The cover is open right now. - Photo by Jim Craven