Oregon pear growers say they’re finding themselves being squeezed out by good intentions.
Those intentions take the form of a 1973 state law that took decisions about land use away from local jurisdictions and placed them in the hands of a state agency.
Supporters of the law said it was designed to allay concerns about the environment and the damage caused by urban sprawl.
But pear growers say it put the squeeze on them.
From the mid-1990s through 2010 the state’s pear industry lost more than 3,500 acres, and the number of pear growing operations dropped from nearly 90 to fewer than 50, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Restrictions on land use prevent orchard operators from expanding, said David Garcia, chief executive officer of Diamond Fruit Growers, Hood River, Ore.
“Especially in the Hood River Valley, we’re not able to just go over there and turn over new ground,” he said.
Land set aside for agriculture is virtually fixed, he said.
“If something goes in, something old has to go out, and that’s pears, so you are seeing a reduction in volume in the valley just because of that,” Garcia said.
That leaves pear growers little room for anything but innovation.
Innovate they must if they are to survive, Garcia said.
“Pear growers are going to have to do a better job with spacing and getting more production out of fewer acres, and they’re doing that,” he said.
Acreage for Diamond Fruit Growers has been relatively stable, Garcia said.
“The biggest impact has been growers trying to diversify more into blueberries and grapes and some cherries. We’ve seen a small reduction,” he said.
Land restrictions are extra harsh for any growing operation that hits even one down year, said Doug Lowry, chief executive officer of Phoenix, Ore.-based Associated Fruit Co., which has seen its acreage slip from about 1,500 to 500 in recent years.
“The problem is if you fall behind and have bad years, there’s no means of recapitalizing your business,” he said, describing land as any operation’s chief asset.
Land-use restrictions prevent growers from transitioning from one plot of ground to another that might offer more promise, Lowry said.
“Particularly when you’re dealing with a crop like pears — a tree crop — there’s only so many people who would be interested in the land,” he said.
In a down economy, particularly in real estate, a return on a sale of property would be limited, perhaps prohibitive, if a grower could even sell it, Lowry said.
“Within Oregon, because it has certain designations, even if it isn’t in a quality piece of ground for growing on, legally it stays as such, so you’re really kind of up against the wall,” he said.
The pear grower population is noticeably smaller in southern Oregon, Lowry said.
“There are probably five that are farming over 100 acres,” he said, estimating that there had been “probably five times as many or more” in the not-too-distant past.