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Pear conditioning

Just like people, pears need sunblock on sweltering 100-degree days.

Not every variety benefits from an application of micronized calcium carbonate, but it certainly minimizes sunburn and heat stress for Red Anjous and Comice — two of Jackson County's mainstay commercial crops.

Coming off a succession of 100-degree days, orchardists caught a break Sunday when the clouds blanketing the Rogue Valley fended off temperatures that just a few days earlier had been predicted to hit 107 degrees. Presently, forecasts are for more triple-digit highs peaking at 111 degrees on Thursday.

"Generally speaking, pears quit growing when it gets over 100 degrees," said Ron Meyer, a Talent orchardist. "So far, that hasn't happened. We've put sun blocker on the varieties that are the most susceptible and the orchards that have overhead sprinklers and water available have been turning them on in the afternoon to keep them cool. If you don't have that option, then you have to get in the rotation to wait for irrigation."

Meyer recalls scorching temperatures in the 1950s that harmed family crops, but orchards now have better protection on multiple fronts.

"I've seen it reach as high as 114 here, and actually burn pears on the trees," he said. "That was 60 years ago or more. We didn't have the sunblocker or irrigation we have now."

The ground beneath the orchard was kept free of grass decades ago, but thinking has changed over the years.

"In my grandfather's day, they would keep the ground tilled as early as they could from spring so they could keep all the vegetation down to preserve moisture for the pears."

But the bare ground reflected heat, creating other problems.

"Since there is grass between the tree rows, you don't get the reflection off the ground you used to get," Meyer said.

Despite the lowest snowpack on record, most growers will have ample irrigation water to make it through the summer.

"We should be all right, depending on the water source," he said. "We're in the Talent Irrigation District and we feel we have enough water to take us into the first weeks of September, which is enough for the pear crop. Those pulling water out of the Rogue River should be OK, but those dependent on smaller stream flows may suffer."

That said, Meyer and his fellow growers are wary of another abnormally dry winter.

"Another dry season like this and we would be hurting," Meyer said. "By the end of the growing season most of the reservoirs will be empty; there won't be any carryover to next year like there was this year. We need a normal or above-normal amount of rain and snow to have adequate irrigation next year."

The continued heat will put more pressure on irrigation systems.

"The demand is high right now," Meyer said. "I would say we're using 25 percent more water than usual."

While pears and apples can take a beating from the sun, peaches have built-in protection.

"The peaches have fuzz that provides a protection all of its own," said Terry Light of Hillcrest Orchard. "You just have to keep them irrigated."

Hillcrest Orchard is part of the Medford Irrigation District system, drawing water from Fourmile Lake.

Light said care has to be taken when applying overhead sprinkling to avoid leaving water ringlets that can mark the pear skin and then get burned into the surface.

To this point, growing conditions have been nearly perfect, pushing harvest dates two weeks ahead of normal, Meyer said. He anticipates Bartlett picking to begin Aug. 10-15. The normal window is Aug. 20 to Sept. 1.

"We have one of the nicest pear crops we've ever had," Meyer said. "It's nice and clean with no russeting."

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/EconomicEdge.

Orchards along Payne Road near Talent are watered under the shade provided by their leaves. Many regional orchards have plenty of water to help keep their crops cool in the triple-digit temperatures. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell