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Weather, fire impair pear harvest

Below average pear production was reported by Rogue Valley orchardists in a year when they had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, variable weather that impacted the crop and the Almeda fire, which caused little damage to orchards.

“Our orchards just didn’t produce very well. It’s not a vintage year,” said Mike Naumes, president of Naumes, Inc. Weather was a factor in what he called “a very short crop.”

Many growers wrapped up most of the harvest a little earlier than usual, in early September, but that was because the volume was lower than normal, said Rick Hilton, an entomologist with the Oregon State University Extension Service office near Jacksonville.

Harry & David’s Matt Borman, vice president of orchards, reported that fruit quality and size were good, although the crop load for Comice was below average.

For Comice, the most-grown variety in the valley, it was definitely a down year, said Hilton. The variety seems to run in a cycle every other year, he said. Another major variety, Bosc, was also down.

Naumes has about 1,400 acres in pears in the Rogue Valley, another 90 acres in wine grapes and also operates the only packing house available to other orchards in the valley. Harry & David’s packing operation is for in-house products that are sold through its mail order and retail outlets.

Harry & David operates bout 1,900 acres of orchards across the valley. Since 2014 it has been adding to its acreage to sustain long-term operations. Overall the valley has about 3,800 acres in pears.

“The quality is OK, but certainly not what we are used to. Quality is up and down, with the hail kind of scratching up the fruit,” said Naumes. One heavy hail storm on the west side left enough damage to make the crop not worth harvesting.

A single night of really cold weather in the spring seemed to produce a lot of damage during the blossoming time, said Naumes. Later hot periods were interspersed with cold times, which also seemed to affect the crop. Extreme heat late in the summer was a challenge for growers who still had fruit to pick, Borman said.

Bloom this year was warm again, and fast, which can be a problem, Borman said. Flowers were abundant, but fruit set seemed down after the June drop. A variety of factors affect crops each year, so it’s hard to know for sure why this year was lower than average, he said.

Extremely high winds Sept. 8, which led to the Almeda fire, also produced damage. About 100 bins of Bosc pears were knocked to the ground by the wind in Naumes orchards in the south end of the valley. That fruit could not be salvaged. The Sept. 8 winds also put scars and big dents into the fruit that remained on the tress, meaning quality had to be downgraded.

While it was a hot, dry summer, irrigation districts were able to supply growers until the beginning of September or beyond in most cases, said Hilton.

Continuous investment over the last six years by Harry & David in irrigation automation helped the company manage its water very effectively, Borman reported. But he says the valley is in desperate need of a good winter season and heavy snowpack, a sentiment echoed by Hilton.

Border trees in three of Harry & David’s 19 orchards were affect by heat from the Almeda fire. Names reported one orchard suffered some damage on its fringes.

Winds that drove the Almeda fire nearly to Naumes tasting room and crew housing on Suncrest Road shifted at the last moment and the facilities were spared. About 30 Naumes employees across all company operations lost homes in the fire. A $100,000 fund was created by the company, friends, suppliers and employees to help those affected.

This season was his most difficult in 21 years with the company, Borman reported. The firm worked with Oregon OSHA, Jackson County and La Clinica to put plans into place to complete the harvest safely.

Recruiting workers was difficult, Borman reported, and a smaller crew stretched out the harvest season, although that also helped with COVID safety measures. Social distancing and sanitizing procedures were developed for both the field and for housing. Increased training and communication were employed along with monitoring.

Labor for picking was not an issue despite the COVID-19 pandemic, said Naumes. The company uses workers through the federal H2A agricultural exchange program that brings in out-of-country help. Housing those workers was complex, but by following the rules to the letter the company didn’t have issues with COVID-19. Workers for the packing house remain in short supply, which has slowed the usual pace there, said Naumes.

Despite the challenges, pear revenue appears to be a bright spot after prices were low last year.

“Industry-wide the market has been pretty strong. It’s a short crop in California and the Pacific Northwest, so pricing has been pretty good,” said Naumes.

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

A half-burnt pear hang in a tree a Beebe Farms in Central Point. (Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune)