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Pear growers beat some COVID-19 impacts

Pear tree pruning and pear packing in the Rogue Valley concluded in late February just before restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic might have put a crimp on operations.

But no one can be certain how this growing year will play out, say industry leaders and consultants.

Many orchards rely on the federal H2A program that brings out-of-country workers to the valley, houses them and then returns them home, said Rick Hilton, an entomologist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

“They are housing people. Everything was sort of done with the crews,” said Hilton.

If new restrictions go into place, it could complicate harvest activities, he said.

Pruning in the orchards is done throughout the winter until early March.

“We were pretty much finished with pruning and also packing, which would have been the main problem with social distancing,” said Mike Naumes, president of Naumes, Inc.

Naumes has about 1,400 acres in pears but also runs the only pear packing plant left in the valley except for Harry & David, which handles its own output. The operation kept about 150 local residents working full time from harvest until late February packing their own pears and those from other orchards, said Naumes.

Pear orchards and the packing house are 92% of Naumes’ business, with the rest in grapes. The firm no longer has juicing plants it operated in Washington and California. About 15 acres of older orchards were taken out, but no decision has been made yet on how that land may be used.

Besides COVID-19 impacts, drought is an issue of concern. Lower than normal winter precipitation has resulted in reduced snowpack.

“Irrigation districts have delayed their starts. We’ll be on enlarged rotations getting water for each cycle,” said Naumes. “But the crop may be a little on the early side. That will help us from the watering standpoint.”

With anticipated melt of snowpack and water on hand, drought shouldn’t be a problem this year, said Hilton. “The big concern is if we have another winter like this one.”

Both Naumes and Hilton say the crop looks good so far, but a variety of things can affect it before harvest. Blossoming has just concluded.

“We think we have a decent set of fruit on the trees. It’s a little early this year. Most varieties look pretty solid,” said Naumes. A mild winter and warmer temperatures over the last three weeks brought the crop on earlier, despite a cold spell in February. There were very few problems with frost this winter.

Pear psyclla, an insect, has been a problem in recent years. Last year was the worst for the pest he’d seen in his 20 years, said John Neilsen, manager of a 58-acre orchard off Foothill Road owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“It has been the number one pest. We are doing a lot of work on it,” said Hilton. “Right now, it seems not as bad, but we won’t know until harvest.”

The market for pears continues to be weak overall, said Hilton.

At the LDS orchard, the labor situation is different. Usually thousands of volunteers work the orchards throughout the year. With requirements for social distancing the orchard has brought in more paid labor and is using only a few volunteers to perform work, said Neilsen.

“In the past, we would have had a large number work for a couple hours,” said Neilsen. There are four full-time employees and four service missionaries who work three days per week.

If social distancing is still in place when harvest time comes, the orchard will need to adopt new procedures. In other years hundreds of volunteers, most church members, have worked together to pick the crop.

More food is going out of church storehouses for food banks than in the past to meet needs cause by the pandemic, said Neilsen. As a result, he expects more of this year’s crop will be canned to maintain those supplies and less will be sold.

“The temperatures have been pretty moderate this spring so we haven’t had much threat of fire blight,” said Nielsen. “The ground is still moist now so there isn’t any water stress in the trees yet.”

Growers have been getting updates from Hilton on what’s going on in the orchards, but Nielsen said he misses the regular grower forums Hilton held in previous years.

“It’s much better than nothing but there is something lost when you don’t have the chance to interact,” said Neilsen.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at boomwriter@gmail.com.

file photoPear blossoms grow in an orchard off Payne Road in Medford.