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Drought is killing pear industry

Pear orchardist Ron Meyer has literally pulled up roots and gotten out of an industry that has sustained his family for more than 100 years.

“We have pulled up all of our orchard,” Meyer said. “The pear industry, with the lack of water, is zero.”

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Pears at an orchard near Harry & David off of Voorhies Road wait to be harvested on Monday.

Meyer said the drought and the high cost of labor have undermined his ability to grow a crop that put the Rogue Valley on the map in the 1900s.

The drought in particular has dealt a severe blow to Jackson County’s pear industry, with large growers such as Harry & David and Naumes Inc. seeing only a quarter of their usual crop this year.

As a result, smaller pears, which are typically not as marketable, are helping fill the void, and Harry & David has scoured the Pacific Northwest looking for sources of its prized Comice pears.

“They lowered the grade, they lowered the size, and they are still short,” Meyer said.

Rather than risking another dry season, Meyer has removed the pear trees on his remaining 75 acres in Talent.

Since 1910, his family has been operating orchards in the valley.

In the heyday of pear growing, some 12,000 acres grew locally. Estimates now peg that amount at 3,500 acres, with about six major growers left.

Meyer said his decision to end his pear growing operation was straightforward enough.

“If it don’t make money, I don’t want to do it,” he said.

He said he might end up planting hay on his acreage, noting that it is a less labor-intensive crop than pears.

Mike Naumes, whose family started the company in 1946 and has the second highest number of acres after Harry & David, said, “After this year, there will be very few growers left in this district. It’s a staggering loss for everybody.”

The past 10 years have been particularly brutal, with less rainfall and skimpy snowpacks that result in less irrigation ditch water.

“We didn’t even pick 600 of our acres,” Naumes said. “That represents 45% of our pear operation.”

Naumes has 1,300 acres of pear orchards and 100 acres of wine grapes in the valley.

He said he’s particularly sad to hear that Meyer has decided to get out of the pear industry.

“He’s a great farmer,” Naumes said.

To make matters worse this season, the pear industry weathered a severe hail storm in spring that severely damaged a lot of the young fruit.

Irrigation ditch water, the lifeblood of agricultural operations in the valley, was shut down early this summer.

To top it off, the valley endured one of the hottest summers on record, with weeks of temperatures in the 100s and little to no water for the fruit.

“This has been a disaster,” Naumes said.

Last year was also difficult, with labor shortages and labor costs increasing, particularly the high cost of the H-2A visa program that allows foreign nationals to work in the United States.

Because of the hardships facing the industry and uncertainty about the future, Naumes said he expects the total acreage of pears in the valley to drop to 2,500 acres, possibly as low as 2,000 acres.

Despite his own losses, Naumes vows to continue growing pears next year.

“We are going to try to survive,” he said. “We just need a lot of rain and a good snow pack.”

But if the valley doesn’t get sufficient rainfall, he said the prospects would be pretty bleak.

“That would put the rest of us, with the exception of Harry & David, out of business,” he said.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.