Looks like another good year for pears
CASHMERE — Pears have been very steady in crop size, quality and profts in recent years.
Another large apple crop and more competition
WENATCHEE — Pears aren’t the only fruit coming off the trees right now.
CASHMERE — Agriculture has kept North Central Washington buoyant through some rough economic waters the past few years. The region is famed for its apples, cherries and more recently wine grapes that drive some of the state’s major industries.
But one of the valley’s most important crops — and steadiest money-makers — often goes unnoticed. The humble pear attracts little attention except each spring, when orchards that line the Wenatchee River Valley burst into popcorn white full bloom. Most travelers pouring into Wenatchee from the west side for the Washington State Apple Blossom Festival probably assume it is apple trees they see.
Tourists flock here from around the world for the area’s acclaimed summer cherry harvest. Wine festivals have become nearly weekly events to celebrate the growing number of fine wineries that have opened in recent years.
There have been no pear festivals, however. Other than the annual Pear Bowl football game between Cashmere and Cascade High schools, there’s no big event attended by thousands to applaud pears. There are no kings, queens or pear princesses crowned.
And yet, here we are in a valley still largely economically defined by a crop that has been a mainstay for more than 100 years, yet receives little credit.
It’s been a long while since Wenatchee could honestly call itself the world’s apple capital.
But the Wenatchee River Valley and its NCW surroundings is truthfully North America’s —if not the Western Hemisphere’s — leading producer of the d’Anjou pear, widely considered the king of pears. It’s also a leading producer of Bartlett and Bosc pears. Yakima and Hood River and Medford, Ore., are also major pear growing areas. China grows far more pears, but mostly of crispy, round Asian varieties.
Last year’s pear crop brought in more than $208 million to NCW growers and packing houses, said Tim Smith, a Washington State University extension agent who has worked with tree fruit growers in the region for 30 years. Most of that money was from sales of pears grown in Chelan County. Washington pear sales brought about $400 million to the state and that doesn’t include any factors that economists use to multiply that amount as the money is cycled through the local businesses. Pears are the third leading fruit crop — behind apples and cherries — in a state where agriculture ranks high among products and services that contribute to the economy.
“Pears aren’t as exciting as apples, but it’s a big business here,” Smith said. “It’s a meat and potatoes steady crop that a farmer on a modest amount of land can make a living.”
Unlike apple growers, pear growers aren’t replacing their orchards every few years in search of the hot new variety that will make them a fortune, said Ray Schmitten, who grows about 180 acres of pears between Monitor, Cashmere and Dryden.
“It’s not hot and spicy. But it’s steady and exciting to us farmers who grow them,” said Schmitten, 50. His family has grown pears in the area since 1900. He and his wife have four sons, two who are already working with him and want to continue the farm.
Pear farmers, he said, are mostly stable people who are content with the steady returns of reliable d’Anjou, Bartlett and Bosc.
“We don’t have a lot of hope of finding another variety to replace the d’Anjou,” said Schmitten, chairman of the Northwest Pear Research Commission. The commission oversees research projects that look for new varieties as well as the most efficient and sustainable ways to grow pears.
“We have trees that are 80 years old — some 100 years old — that are still producing good fruit,” he said. Many orchards are younger than that because growers replant and have replaced apples and other crops with pears that are better suited to the soils and climate.
Washington produces more than half of the nation’s pears, close to 20 million 44-pound boxes a year. More than half of Washington’s pears come from the Wenatchee District, which includes Chelan, Douglas, Okanogan and part of Grant counties. And most of those pears grow between Wenatchee and Leavenworth.
“The U.S. is the second or third largest pear producer in the world,” said Cristie Mather, spokeswoman for Pear Bureau Northwest, the marketing arm for pears grown in Washington and Oregon, “and most of them are grown right there. That’s something to be proud of.”