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1980: Pears without pollution

The 1980 issue of Our Valley was about us, our work, our play, our learning and our coping, including how we deal with life’s challenges and setbacks.

The thick section on our jobs profiled an amazing array of work we do in Our Valley — saw filer, ER doctor, dog catcher, judge, fish counter, on and on.

In those days, pear orchards (along with wood products) were big job providers, but both have faded considerably. And both brought with them concerns for the environment. At its peak, the pear industry had 400 growers; now there are 10 — with wine grape and cannabis growers replacing them.

To keep budding pears safe from spring frost, a hard and vital job was — and still is — jumping out of bed in the wee hours to light heaters and flip on fans or water spray, with the goal of boosting temperatures a few degrees above freezing.

In the beginning, growers set out smudge pots, which were nothing more than bowls of oil they’d burn, based on the “fallacy” that smoke protected buds from frost, says Talent grower Ron Meyer. The smudge pots created black smoke and were replaced in the ‘60s by “return stack” heaters, which recycled smoke and were “pretty clean,” Meyer says.

The system was practical when diesel fuel was 11 cents a gallon, but in the ‘70s diesel jumped past a dollar — and environmental regulations clamped down on air pollution. So growers brought in fans run by motors atop 30-foot towers and that, says Meyer, “gave us a three-degree temperature rise by forcing warmer air down to ground level.”

Fans cut oil burning by 80 percent. Augmenting this system were over-tree sprinklers.

Forty years ago, high school students got up early and flocked to orchards to work for minimum wage, walking rows and lighting heaters with hand-held oil lamps. Meyer had 2,500 heaters to light. It was good money in those days, says Meyer, but when fans arrived in the mid-’80s, it all but wiped out this cash cow for students. In addition, Meyer and other growers shifted to flame throwers, lighting heaters from a rolling ATV.

“I still would hire some students,” he notes, “but I don’t get calls from them anymore.”

The economy and globalized trade have not been kind to the once-booming pear industry. Pears are grown in many other areas, with many imported from South America, he says. Meyer used to pick and process 115 acres (14,000 trees) of fruit on-site, but now the fruit is sent to Diamond Fruit Co., a grower’s cooperative in Hood River. Plus, he adds, “I’m 80 and too old for this.”

Meyer Orchards was started by his grandfather, Wendolin Meyer, a German immigrant who was mining coal in Illinois when, in 1910, he spied an advertisement from the Medford Chamber of Commerce encouraging people to come to the Rogue Valley and grow pears. His son Joseph continued the family business, handing it off to Ron Meyer. Ron’s son Kirt, 50, is the fourth generation to work the orchard — and, though it’s been a fruitful life, their offspring are being encouraged to do something else.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Pears are harvested at Frink Orchard near Medford. Mail Tribune / File Photo