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Earlier than normal pear harvest coming up short of expectations

It's been a trying year for Naumes Inc., long ranked among the world's largest pear growers.

Although the Medford-based agribusiness managed to sidestep many of the water issues plaguing California growers, Naumes couldn't escape the fury of wildfires in Central Washington. Devastating fires east of the Cascades not only took out swaths of cropland last month, they reduced hundreds of homes and commercial buildings to ashes.

Naumes Inc. President Mike Naumes detailed the harrowing and costly experience to the company's Washington ranch, then counted the blessings, including a relatively good harvest here in the Rogue Valley. 

"The bottom line is we were very lucky it wasn't a lot worse," Naumes said.

Midway through what turned out to be one of the earliest harvests in local pear-growing history, Naumes can see this year's Rogue Valley crop hasn't measured up to expectations or 2013 production.

Local pear sales produce $30 million to $40 million annually (excluding Harry & David's value-added gift market), and the industry's ripple effect adds up to about 15 percent of Jackson County's gross domestic product, according to Oregon State University estimates.

"We're two weeks ahead of normal, one of the earliest harvests I can remember — we're getting halfway into winter pears by Sept. 1," Naumes said. "Usually we're just beginning to start by the first of September and often don't finish Bartletts until Labor Day. We weren't expecting a huge crop, and I think this will be 15 percent below average."

Bartlett production, coming off a short year in 2013, was above estimates here by about 12 percent, he said. However, Comice yields were 20 percent under estimate and the winter pears —  Bosc, and red and green D'Anjou — will fall below earlier estimates.

The primary culprit, Naumes said, was a March 22-23 freeze.

"We just don't have the fruit in the trees," he said. "The bottoms of trees are pretty bare, indicating damage from a freeze early on."

 The freeze, however, is nowhere near as damaging as the July fire, which destroyed seven miles of deer fence surrounding 12,000 trees on 450 acres in Okanogan County.

"Sometimes it totally burned up a tree and in other cases it just scorched it," Naumes said.

Naumes Inc. lost electricity to the site, forcing the company to bring in generators to run two six-horsepower pumps and a series of booster pumps to move water 1,400 feet from the Columbia River into a 9-million gallon storage tank. 

"We burned through $100,000 of diesel just to run the generators for a week," Naumes said.

The deer fence and sprinklers used for dust control weren't covered by insurance.

"We had $200,000 in losses that weren't covered and $200,000 that was covered," he said. "Federal crop insurance could cover some of the crop loss; we have some hail and fire insurance on our apples, but not the pears."

Particularly disturbing to Naumes was that the home of one of his workers in nearby Pateros was leveled by the fire.

"We took up a collection for the family," he said. 

Back home in Southern Oregon, Naumes said the harvest has gone well despite a shortage of pickers.

"That's an ongoing problem," he said. "The good news is that we're right where we need to be in order to get the rest of the crop off in the right time frame with the maturity level spread out. Last year, we had a pretty big crop and everything came on at one time. This year, the maturity level has been spread out."

Growers typically have to navigate through the whims of nature and circumstance. Stung by a few nasty hailstones in July and more recently by an embargo on exports to Russia, Associated Fruit CEO Doug Lowry said the crop is close to expecations.

"Overall, it's going to be good quality," said Lowry, who works 550 acres in the south end of the Bear Creek drainage. "It's a little lighter, but given last year was a bigger crop, we're not overly surprised."

About 60 percent of Associated Fruit's crop is Bosc, which usually keeps pickers busy as late as October.

"From what I'm seeing when I've checked across the valley, most people are going to have a good Bosc crop," Lowry said. "The market looks like it should be decent, and we've done everything on our end, now we just need to get it packed, and hopefully make a few bucks."

Gary Hubler is hoping for a modest return on his much smaller 10-acre orchard, as well.

Last fall, Hubler estimated, he trucked 12 to 14 tons of pears to ACCESS because hail damage turned his cash crop into donation fruit.

Hubler's trees are still young in their production cycle, beginning their commercial-level output three years ago. By the time he finishes harvesting his golden russeted Bosc later in September, he expects total production of 12 to 14 tons.

"We took 11 bins off our Bartlett trees this year, up from seven last year," he said. "It took more irrigation, fertilizer and a lot of TLC."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31,  and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.


Gary Hubler stands with recently harvested pears at his orchard near Coleman Creek Road in Phoenix on Saturday. Hubler says pear harvest is early this year. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch