YAKIMA -- OK, so the Yakima Valley is wine country.
The Cougars and Huskies play each year in the Apple Cup. There is no Pear Cup. You don't see signs advertising pear country.
But the Yakima Valley, despite the relative fame of its apple and grape crops, is just about as productive a pear-growing region as there is in the country.
The vast bulk of the nation's pears are grown in the Northwest, and thousands of acres of those orchards are right here in the Valley.
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We grow Bartletts, the harvest for which is just winding down, and we grow "winter pears," such as the D'Anjou and Bosc, which are just starting to be harvested.
"Washington state is the largest pear producer in the United States, and the United States is the largest pear producer in the world, if you exempt China, which grows mostly Asian varieties," said Kevin Moffitt, president of the Portland-based Pear Bureau Northwest.
Only the Hood River, Ore., area and Wenatchee surpass the Yakima Valley in growing pears to be sold fresh, Moffitt said. And that's partly because most of the Yakima Valley's pears are Bartletts sold for canning, whereas almost all Wenatchee pears and about half of the Hood River pears are marketed fresh.
"Yakima is unique among the growing areas, with regard to Bartlett pears," said Jay Grandy, general manager of the Yakima-based Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association.
There are only five pear canneries in the Northwest, and three of those -- Del Monte Foods, Snokist and Independent Foods -- are in the Yakima Valley. That proximity has allowed local growers to market smaller Bartletts, which don't take as much year-round work to grow, rather than focusing on producing D'Anjous, Boscs or larger Bartletts.
About 90 percent of the Valley's Bartletts, by far the area's most prevalent variety, are sold for canning, Grandy said.
That fits well with local growers' schedules, he said, because they can basically ignore their Bartlett trees while pruning and thinning apple trees and harvesting cherries in June.
"There's a leave them alone and grow them for the cannery mentality," Grandy said.
Then, when August rolls around, the harvest goes fast. Lower Valley growers already have their Bartletts picked and are gearing up for winter pears, said Jim Doornink, a Wapato grower who has 50 acres of pears.
Most Upper Valley growers, like Kevin Knight of Naches, were wrapping up their Bartlett harvest at the end of last week. Doornink had about 65 pickers this year and got the harvest done in about 10 days, averaging about 22 tons per acre. Knight, who has 45 acres of pears, got his harvest done with 25 pickers, working from daylight to mid-afternoon, averaging about 20 tons per acre.
Both men said the nice thing about pears, relative to apples, is that they're picked green, so they don't need to be coddled so much to avoid bruising.
"Apples are harvested just about ripe, just about ready to eat out of hand," Doornink said. "Pears, on the other hand, are picked quite green. Then, when they ripe, they ripen to a smooth, buttery texture. ... And when I say green, they're literally just green and hard. They're way more tolerant of bruising."
This year's Yakima Valley crop is down from last year in terms of volume, primarily because of a cool spring. In 2009, local growers produced 129,096 tons of pears, Grandy said. This year's haul will be down about 10 percent to 15 percent from that, he said.
But the prices for cannery-bound pears are up from a baseline of $247 per ton last year to $252 per ton this year. The actual price last year -- which deviates from the baseline depending on demand -- was about $245 per ton, and this year's actual price could be as high as $260 per ton, Grandy said.
So "the total money" growers see in return for their crop may not be much different than last year, he said.
The prices for fresh pears should be up too, Moffitt said; basic supply and demand dictates that. Though Yakima produced 672,410 boxes of summer-fall pears last year, at 44 pounds per box, and is expected to produce only about 592,000 boxes this year, the growers should come out all right, he said.
"I'm expecting better returns overall," Moffitt said. "But it's still early."
For selling pears, maybe. As for the harvest, it's just about done.