The pear industry in the Pacific Northwest appears to be taking a cue from neighbors to the south, who grow and market preripened avocados.
A number of grower-shippers, including Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co., are devoting an increasing amount of energy on conditioning programs.
Unlike avocado shippers, who have run product through ripening rooms for more than a decade, those marketing ripened pears are still relatively new, said Suzanne Wolter, Rainier’s marketing director.
But the template is there to follow, she said.
“It has the potential the change the category much the same way ripe avocados (have) changed the avocado market,” Wolter said.
Ripening has its most lucrative potential with anjous, whose ripeness is more difficult to judge than, say, a bartlett, Wolter said.
“A bartlett turns yellow so the consumer can tell it’s ripe, but an anjou pear remains green,” she said.
A conditioned anjou can produce a unique eating experience, Wolter said.
“When it has been exposed to ethylene, it is the juiciest, sweetest pear ever. It’s like eating a peach,” she said.
In spite of the apparent excitement over conditioning programs, only a small percentage of fruit goes through ripening regimens, Wolter said.
“I know that we’ve grown every year just a little bit more,” Wolter said, adding that her company was the first pear shipper in Washington to build ripening rooms, in 2005.
She said Rainier has improved the process over the years.
“The key is we use vented Euroboxes to ensure consistent ripening throughout the pallet,” she said, adding that controlling the fruit’s core temperature is crucial.
Lowering the fruit’s temperature to 32 degrees halts the ripening process and can add three weeks to the conditioned fruit’s shelf life.
“One of the barriers for retail execution was if they moved to a ripe pear program, they said they’re going to have more shrink, but the reality is sales and rotation are faster,” Wolter said.
Education is perhaps the biggest challenge of building enthusiasm about ripening programs among retailers, Wolter said.
“We’re working on helping get the word out to receiving crews, letting warehouse personnel know and letting in-store produce associates know about proper handling,” she said.
Rainier labels all boxes that contain ripened fruit as such and includes handling information, as well as tips to pass along to the consumer, Wolter said.
It may take awhile for consumers to catch on, Wolter said.
“Most consumers think an anjou pear should be hard and crunchy, but with the ethylene exposure, you get a much better piece of fruit, and I think people would eat more of them if they had that kind of eating experience,” she said.
Other grower-shippers agree.
“We continue to try to expand our ripening program,” said Tim Evans, general sales manager with Chelan Fresh Marketing, Chelan, Wash.
Roger Pepperl, marketing director with Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc., said having a ripening program for pears is as necessary as it is for avocados.