Caring for Pears, a Delicate Fruit

Growers like the Eshoos labor long and hard for their livelihood in Oregon's pear paradise

TAKE your pick - Bartlett, Bosc, Seckel, Anjou, Comice. When it comes to pears, the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon is the Garden of Eden. With just the right combination of temperature, moisture, and elevation, this corner of the Northwest produces the sweet and succulent fruit like no other place - over 50,000 tons this fall. For George and Barbara Eshoo, this is the time of year when they can sit out on the deck on a sunny afternoon, look down across their orchard toward the Siskiyou Mountains, and reflect on the joys of independent farming. The last of the fruit has been harvested and trucked to market. The ``U-Pick'' stand has just closed for the season. The trees are headed into dormancy.

But as idyllic as it might seem, there's not much time to relax in the Valley View Orchard. Soon another cycle of hard work begins with the pruning, then the planting of young trees and grafting of shoots into the cambium layer of grandmother rootstocks that have been trimmed of their tired limbs. Then there's the irrigation and spraying for pests, the machinery to keep up, the reports and accounting to keep track of, the weather to worry about.

Mr. Eshoo's biggest bother these days is deer, which nibble the young plants or break them off while rubbing their antlers. ``Bambi is not his favorite,'' quips Mrs. Eshoo. ``People get so upset that he doesn't like deer.'' Her husband has a special agricultural permit to shoot them out of season, but that doesn't seem to do much good.

Mr. and Mrs. Eshoo bought these 50 acres 23 years ago. The orchard dates back to the descendants of one of the original settlers in the Rogue Valley, and some of the pear trees have been producing for 60 years or more. In the early 1970s, recalls Mrs. Eshoo, three years of killing frost forced them to diversify the orchard. They now grow cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, and apples. But pears - which have to be treated with greater care and therefore are off-limits to the families and bus loads of school kids who come to pick their own fruit - are still the main crop.

Years ago, there were hundreds of independent pear growers in this valley. Now there are about two dozen, the rest having sold out to larger outfits like the Bear Creek Corporation (parent company for Harry and Davidfull name?) or developers who bulldozed them into suburban neighborhoods.

Family farmers in the valley, like the Eshoos, belong to a wholesale cooperative up the road in Medford, which packs, refrigerates, and ships the pears to grocers all over the country. Fruit that is not table quality is sold to baby food manufacturers. To increase productivity, Mr. Eshoo has been planting young trees between the rows of older siblings. Anjous aren't the best money crop for this region (Washington State is better), so he's also been grafting red and green Bartlett shoots onto Anjou rootstock. Showing off his orchard to a visitor, he points out that in just one summer the grafts have grown five feet. They'll be producing pears in three years, he says.

The Eshoos have one full-time employee during the summer and fall when things are busiest (a burly and bearded retired fireman who winters in Mexico), and as many as five when it's time to pick the fruit. But to keep labor costs to a minimum, Mr. Eshoo does most of the work himself, including moving the 2-inch aluminum irrigation pipe regularly and spraying for Psylla, San Jose scale, fur mites, and codling moths. ``They're making pesticides more and more benign,'' he says. ``But the expense has gone up tremendously because of the cost of registering them with the federal government.''

``I'd like to just farm, but don't feel I could afford to yet,'' he says. He owns an insurance agency in town;and Mrs. Eshoo sells watercolors painted in her studio attached to the packing shed.

Like many small farmers, the Eshoos feel they get shortchanged on profits from their produce. ``We get 25 cents a pound at most for apples and pears, and they're still at least 65 cents a pound in the store,'' says Mrs. Eshoo. Adds her husband: ``The farmer doesn't make any money, it's the packer and the grocery store. That's why I decided to get into retail and make some of the money myself.''

The couple's favorite variety of pear is the Comice, which Mrs. Eshoo describes as ``so juicy and sweet and wonderful.'' She cans them for salads or broils them with cinnamon and butter for dessert.

As with most small-scale farming, there's a lot of hard work here and also a lot of faith. The flyer for Valley View Orchard includes two Biblical quotations that are favorites of Barbara and George Eshoo: ``He is able to provide exceedingly abundantly, above all that we ask or think'' (Ephesians), and ``He that abideth in Me bringeth forth much fruit'' (John).

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