MEDFORD, ORE. — HARRY and David treat pears like pearls of great price: very tender and tempermental pearls needing the utmost in care and handling to justify their price of over $4 a pound. Harry and David, as anyone who receives holiday catalogs this time of year knows, is the nation's leading gift fruit company. Started by brothers Harry and David Holmes during the Great Depression, the mail-order business has gone through a series of corporate takeovers in recent years. It is now a subsidiary of the San Francisco-based Shaklee Corporation, acquired by the Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical Company of Tokyo last year.
But a tour of the company's facilities in southern Oregon shows that things are still done pretty much as they have been for decades. Out in the company's 1,800 acres of orchards, the fruit is pressure-tested daily to determine picking time. Pears are individually picked, placed in cushioned buckets and bins, carefully graded, stored at 31 degrees F. in a sort of suspended animation, and then individually wrapped and packed for shipping. The workers here (mostly women) come back year after year, and some families have been with Harry and David for two and three generations. From the end of October until early December, three shifts work round-the-clock to get the pears and other products to customers in time for the holidays.
The company mails fruits, nuts, meats, cheeses, candies, and fancy desserts (which are handmade here). But its most famous product is the ``Royal Riviera Pear'' (a copyrighted name for top-of-the-line Comice pears), ``so big and juicy you eat them with a spoon'' (a copyrighted phrase).
When your product grows on trees and new trees take five years or so to be commercially productive, you have to plan far ahead. Bill Williams, president and chief executive of Bear Creek Corporation (the parent company for Harry and David), sees his market expanding. ``We look at demographics and consumer attitudes and see that fresh fruits are going to be an even more important part of the diet,'' he says. ``People will be buying for their own consumption as well as for gifts.''
Mr. Williams is closely watching two things that could influence his business: Rising postal rates and environmental concerns about catalogs adding to landfills and requiring so many trees to produce them.
``I think we're a pretty efficient way of shopping,'' he says. ``Trees are renewable, and you don't have to use gas to drive around.'' For now, at least, many Americans seem to agree. Requests for Harry and David catalogs have gone up 50 percent this past year, and Williams says ``we can sell more pears than we produce.''