PULLMAN, Wash. — Growers want the novelty and popularity of the honeycrisp for their next major pear variety, but change and innovation seemingly haven’t come as easy for pears as for apples.
The level of variety introductions for pears has been much lower than apples, said Steve Lutz, vice president with the West Dundee, Ill.-based Perishables Group.
“The varieties that have been the mainstays for the past 20 years are still the mainstays today,” he said.
Some newer pear varieties with good potential have failed to reach consumers, and growers, discouraged with poor returns of those varieties, have dropped them, Lutz said.
In general, the pear industry is making money but is fragile because of a lack of innovation, said Amit Dhingra, a Washington State University horticultural genomicist, Pullman.
While apples have about 24 commercial varieties, Dhingra said there has been no infusion of new and exciting pear varieties.
Additionally, the large acreage gains for pears that some in the industry predicted a decade ago have failed to materialize.
Northwest pear production has seen neither huge increases or decreases, said Robert Gix, horticulturist with Blue Star Growers Inc., Cashmere.
“Hood River growers are making money on 50-year-old trees, so what is the impetus for change?” Dhingra said.
Older orchards are not as efficient as newer orchards, though, and while growers would like researchers to develop chemicals or mechanisms to improve quality in existing orchards, Dhingra said less chemicals and nutrients would be required for newer orchards.
One of the first priorities of tree fruit breeders will be to find a dwarfing rootstock for pears, he said, which would allow growers to plant more intensive and efficient orchards.
Dhingra said the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pear breeding program is located in West Virginia doesn’t help spread innovation, he said.
“We should not blame the breeders or the farmers. That’s not the issue,” Dhingra said. “There is a lack of pear research, period.”
Handling through the supply chain also remains an issue for pears.
Too many retailers want to treat pears like apples, which results in bruised and unsalable fruit, Dhingra said.
The two condition issues of the pears at retail — hard as a rock or bruised and battered — present a problem that marketers and retailers must solve with programs such as conditioned fruit, he said.
In the long term, one game-changer for the pear industry could be the development of a pear variety suitable for the fresh-cut category.
“If we could work with (fresh-cut processors), that could be a huge stimulus,” he said.
In general, he said flavor, convenience and added varieties are elements that could influence the popularity of pears in the future.
Many consumers perceive pears to be bland, and Dhingra believes there are opportunities in coming years to open more of the flavor profile to consumers.
“Consumers’ perceptions drive us, and bartletts or anjous are considered either baby food or not ripe,” he said.
Enhancing pear flavor could involve importing new cultivars from Spain, Italy and Argentina, he said.
The potential for sales growth for pears is huge, Dhingra said.
Northwest apples account for about $2.4 billion, while Northwest pears total just about $400 million.
“The next opportunity is in pears,” he said.
“I think the pear category is totally in a growth mode,” said Scott Marboe, director of marketing for Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee.
“I think preconditioning programs are really starting to help the anjou, putting out better product that is more ready to eat,” he said.