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Early pear harvest likely

The warm spell earlier this spring put the Rogue Valley's pear crop on the fast track for a bountiful harvest.

Last year's came a week earlier than normal and local growers anticipate that picking this year could begin in late July, a week to 10 days earlier than last year. Even the June drop ' when pears are about the size of marbles and crop size can be estimated ' arrived in the last several days.

Although orchardists earlier expected a bumper crop, the harvest now is predicted to be lighter.

To predict harvest dates, growers now have the advantage of technology at OSU's Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in west Medford to determine harvest dates.

The experiment station plugged temperatures and bloom dates into a program and it spit out when harvest would be, says Tim Pearson, quality control supervisor at Southern Oregon Sales. Last year, we were actually ahead of normal and we're about a week ahead of last year. So we're two weeks ahead of normal, compared to whatever 'normal' is these days.

— The cooler wet weather that has dominated recent weeks won't play as big a role as the earlier warmth. The daily highs would have to dip into 40s and 50s to delay the harvest.

Rain and temperatures don't really slow us down that much, Pearson says. Pears love this kind of weather. It aggravates certain diseases, but pears and apples will tolerate it better than stone fruits like peaches, plums or cherries.

He says that a protracted heat spell in June or July could push the picking date back closer to normal.

The trees will shut down if gets into 100 or 102 degrees and stay there, Pearson says. In that kind of deal, trees will stop growing. They'll start losing too much water, close themselves down to prevent moisture loss and shut down the system of absorbing carbon dioxide that they make their energy from.

Frost hasn't been a major factor this year, pollination went well and the fire blight that ravaged Rogue Valley orchards in 2002 has been relatively tame.

We've had just a bit of blight, says Luis Balero, orchard superintendent for Associated Fruit. It isn't anything like we had two years ago. The weather has been perfect. I think when we get more fire blight is when it gets hot and muggy.

Thunderstorms, which have the potential to destroy entire harvests, are the major meteorological concern.

Nobody wants to mention thunderstorms at this point in the scenario, Pearson says. It's about the only thing that can hurt us by dumping hail on us. But farmers are always optimistic and hoping for the best.

Even when a lot of fruit appears to set early in the season, it doesn't assure a bountiful harvest. What first appeared to be a huge crop now seems destined to be closer to average.

Just last week, Scott Martinez, sales operations manager at Associated Fruit, was anticipating a moderate to average summer fruit harvest (Bartlett pears) and average to above average harvest for winter fruit (Anjou, Bosc, Comice and red varieties).

We thought the crop was going to be huge, says Jerry May, president of the Fruit Growers League of Jackson County. But the crop is definitely lightening up from what we thought.

May now predicts the crops will be average.

Varieties and prime crop times Here are the months of local crop availability and description of major varieties as described by the Northwest Pear Bureau and Oregon State University Extension Service.

Bartlett ' Available August through December. The principal canning variety of pear. If a Bartlett is allowed to ripen on the tree, its core becomes mushy and the flesh pithy. Will ripen without cold storage, but can be held in cold storage (at 30 degrees Fahrenheit) for about two months.

Red Bartlett ' Available August through December. Like the yellow Bartlett, it is sweet and juicy when ripe and good for canning and cooking

Seckel ' Available September through February. Good for children's snacks, pickling or as garnish.

Anjou ' Available September through July. Shorter and rounder than a Bartlett, the Anjou is picked green and ripens only after cold storage for a month or more. It softens and becomes light green or greenish-yellow upon ripening. It's slightly less susceptible to fire blight than Bartlett. It also is more cold-hardy in winter than other commercial varieties.

Red Anjou ' Available September through May. Much the same as green Anjou and remains red when ripe.

Forelle ' Available September through March. A smaller variety that turns bright yellow with crimson freckling when ripe.

Bosc ' Available September through April. It matures four to five weeks after Bartletts and can be held in good cold storage for up to four months. Because it is late-blooming, it often avoids spring frosts and is more consistently productive in cool springs than Bartletts. It's very susceptible to fire blight and stony pit virus, and is less cold-hardy than Bartlett.

Comice ' Available September through March. This is the variety on which Bear Creek Corp. hangs its hat. The trademarked Royal Riviera pears are famed throughout the world. Picked while still green five to six weeks after Bartletts and ripened off the tree after a month or more of cold storage. Can be stored three to four months at 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Once ripe, it's extremely juicy and sweet. It also bruises easily. Comice can withstand hot summers, but may reach better quality in climates that aren't extremely hot. .

A baby Comice pear takes shape in an orchard near Talent. Growers say this year?s pear harvest will come a couple weeks early, thanks to a mild spring. But a prolonged spell of severe heat in June could slow it down. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven