By DAN WHEAT
MEDFORD, Ore. -- The smallest pear region on the West Coast -- Medford -- has stabilized and may be poised for a slight comeback after dropping nearly 28 percent in production over the past five years, industry sources say.
New packing and marketing alliances in Medford and between it and Hood River and California are working and Medford acreage may even expand, said Mike Naumes, president and CEO of Naumes Inc., Medford's largest pear company.
The whole West Coast pear industry did well this past year, and Medford has stabilized with fewer players and has "good chances of making it for the long haul," said Scott Martinez, a partner in Associated Fruit Co. in Medford and a sales representative for Rivermaid Trading Co. in Lodi, Calif.
The acreage that remains in Medford, about 6,000, is younger and better producing, positioning growers for success, Martinez said.
Bear Creek, the parent company of Harry & David, is considering expanding orchards to grow more Comice pears for gift packs, Naumes said.
His company is retrofitting a third packing line for return to use in the Southern Oregon Sales plant it is leasing.
"We would like to pack more fruit, but we pack the vast majority of the fruit in the valley right now," Naumes said.
Residential development replacing orchards, the recession, a bad spring frost in 2010 and the area's remoteness from other pear regions all contributed to Medford's pear decline.
The area largely lost its uniqueness in specialty varieties. Growers found it harder to get financing. The largest pressure has been the added cost of positioning pears for distribution and per-acre yield seemed lower in Medford than other regions, Martinez said.
The area produced 1.1 million, 44.5-pound boxes of pears in 2008 and 815,000 in 2012, according to The Pear Bureau Northwest in Portland.
"There has been a lot of consolidation with packing houses closing and some mergers," said Kevin Moffitt, Pear Bureau president. "I think the situation has stabilized. However, they continue to have housing pressures."
More retailers want mixed truck loads of several varieties of apples and pears, making it hard for pear-only Medford to compete with apple-pear regions of Hood River, Yakima and Wenatchee, Wash., and California, Moffitt said.
Medford's advantage of natural brown russet on Bosc has lessened with growth of golden russet Bosc in other districts, Naumes said. But Medford remains the best climate for Comice, which Harry & David has capitalized on, he said.
Naumes, who packs 600,000 to 700,000 boxes of Medford pears annually, believes Medford production will stabilize at 800,000 to 1 million boxes compared with much larger volumes from the other districts.
He points out The Pear Bureau numbers do not include some 200,000 to 300,000 boxes of pears Bear Creek produces annually for Harry & David gift pack.
In 2011, Naumes packed its own fruit, that of Meyer Orchards and added Associated Fruit and Southern Oregon Sales to do almost all the area's packing. For the first time Medford pears were marketed by a California company as Rivermaid entered an agreement with Associated.
Now Associated has regained its footing and taken back two orchards it leased to Naumes and is selling fruit through Rivermaid and Diamond Fruit in Hood River.
Sam Dinsdale, an Eastern Oregon rancher, bought 200 acres of Associated orchards and leased Associated's packing line this past season, Naumes said.
Naumes packs and markets fruit directly from Medford, but also markets some through its Marysville, Calif., operation and with marketing partner Wawona in Cutler, Calif.
Naumes packs about 500,000 boxes of pears and 300,000 boxes of cherries annually in Marysville. It produces 400,000 boxes of apples and pears and 50,000 boxes of cherries annually from its orchards near Chelan and Pateros, Wash., that is packed and sold through Washington companies.
D' Anjou and Bartlett are in full bloom now in Medford and Bosc and Comice are just coming in. April is critical for frost, Naumes noted, but right now it looks like good bud set.