Washington leads U.S. in growing pears

Tri-City HeraldSeptember 13, 2012 

Washington is tops when it comes to growing pears.

More pears are grown here than anywhere else in the nation, and we do it well, according to Pear Bureau Northwest.

In 2011, 1,200 growers produced a bumper crop at 457,000 tons.

“(2011’s) crop was the largest on record since the Pear Bureau began keeping records over 90 years ago,” said Cristie Mather, director of communications for the bureau, which was established in 1931 to promote, advertise and develop markets for fresh pears grown in Washington and Oregon.

The state’s growers also helped make the U.S. the third-largest producer of pears in the world. “Only Argentina and China produce more, and Argentina beats us only by a smidgen. Some years, we’re the second-largest pear producer,” Mather said.

Mather said the 2012 crop was estimated to be down slightly, about 6 percent from 2011.

In 2012, Pear Bureau Northwest estimated growers would harvest 424,080 tons of Bartletts, Bosc, green Anjou and other summer/winter pears. About 32,164 tons of those pears will be from growers in the Mid-Columbia, with another 137,918 tons from orchards in Yakima Valley.

Richard Schell, who sells his cousin’s Bartlett and Red Spice pears at Schell’s Produce in Toppenish, said he’s noticed a 10 percent or 15 percent increase in the sale of pears in past couple of years.

“People are eating healthier and looking for ways to use fruits. They read Sunset magazine and get ideas or watch the cooking shows on television,” he said.

In the Northwest, 10 varieties of pears are commercially grown, though there are a few others that you’ll find only at farmers markets and produce stands, Mather said. Pear harvest begins in August and winds up sometime in October.

“The Bartletts, red Bartletts and Starkrimson come first. They’re what growers call summer pears,” Mather said. “The others — green Anjou, red Anjou, Bosc, Comice, Concorde, foresee and Seckel — are harvested later and are called winter pears.”

The top three varieties grown in Washington and Oregon are green Anjou, which made up about 54 percent of the total 2012 crop, and Bartlett and Bosc pears, which yielded about 21 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

Pears are unique among fruits. They’re one of the few that don’t ripen well on the tree. Growers have found that picking them while mature but still green yields a better product. They measure the firmness and sugar content of the fruit, and when those two things are just right, they harvest, Mather said.

After harvest, the pears are put in a cooler where the starches in the fruit slowly continue converting into sugar. Then, when the pears are taken out of the cooler, they ripen as they warm up, she said.

“That’s what sets United States pears apart from imported pears. Not all countries handle pears like us. If you’ve ever bought ripe pears at the grocery store and were disappointed in the texture and flavor, it was likely an import,” she said.

“To ripen a pear, just set it out on the counter. They’ll ripen in five or six days,” Schell said.

What confuses some people is only a few pears change color as they ripen. Bartletts go from green to yellow and red Bartletts and Starkrimson get a brighter red.

“The rest don’t change color as obviously. To check for ripeness, press on the neck gently. If that part of the pear feels soft, then it’s ripe and sweet,” she said.

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