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Unused orchard fruit isn't marketable

I live in Phoenix, and I was wondering what is happening with Associated Fruit Co. I see orchards with pears falling on the ground. Are these AFC orchards? Are they for sale? Can the local food bank get permission to pick the fruit? Can the general public be allowed to pick the fruit? So sad to see all that beautiful fruit go to waste, and all the loss of employment.

— Catherine R., Phoenix

Early this year, a bad spring frost devastated Associated Fruit Co., and the company lost more than half of its projected pear crop.

In the aftermath of this fiasco, AFC was forced to lay off half of its year-round staff and to cease operations on a number of its orchards.

AFC owns about 900 acres of orchards in Jackson County, predominantly in Talent but also in Phoenix. (Naumes Inc. and Bear Creek Orchards also own orchards in Phoenix.)

AFC Chief Executive Officer Doug Lowry said that some orchards are "no longer economically feasible" — too expensive to operate without the promise of return — and three of the orchards are for sale.

Although this does leave hundreds of pear trees untended, the fruit is not up for grabs.

"Everybody thinks that if they see fruit on the tree, it is marketable fruit, but that's just not the case," Lowry said.

Without treatment, the majority of the fruit has fallen prey to worms and bugs. Fruit lying on the ground is a sign that it is too ripe, if not rotted.

"Believe me, if there was value in going in and doing something with the fruit, it would be in our best interest to do that," Lowry said.

Pests and rotting aside, the orchard is still the property of AFC. It would be trespassing to enter the property unauthorized, and the company can't risk a liability suit and allow people to rummage through the neglected orchards.

"It's not that we're cold-hearted people, we just need to protect ourselves," Lowry said.

AFC cannot, however, simply leave the orchard untended indefinitely. Jackson County has an "abandoned orchard" law that requires orchard owners to maintain their property to prevent the spread of insects and disease.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.