( Courtesy Pear Bureau Northwes )

The Northwest pear industry is adjusting to the coronavirus, said Kevin Moffitt, president and CEO of Milwaukie, Ore.-based Pear Bureau Northwest

The bureau altered course, beginning in mid-March, when the pandemic first swept across the U.S., he said.

“When restaurants closed and consumers began preparing a majority of their meals at home, we promoted our large recipe database on our website with social media advertising,” he said. 

“All of our recipes are shoppable, as well, meaning that consumers can order all of the ingredients to be delivered or picked up with a couple of clicks on our website.”

The bureau reset other strategies, too, Moffitt said.

“As consumer shopping shifted to online, we accelerated the execution of many of our strategies, including more banner ads creating impulse for pears online since consumers were not spending as much time in the stores,” he said. 

“We reinforced our other messaging to consumers with social media advertising, focusing on the health benefits of pears as an excellent source of fiber and containing the antioxidant vitamin C.”

As consumers were looking to reduce their store visits and shop for longer-lasting produce, the Pear Bureau furnished instructions on ripening and extending shelf life, Moffitt said.

“We tested virtual sampling with a couple of retailers and plan to execute more virtual sampling in the coming season as we are not expecting in-store sampling events to take place at least in the early part of our season,” he said.

The Pear Bureau also expanded an ongoing program to send meal kit ideas and recipes to wholesalers who were suppling restaurants that may have shifted to selling meal kits while their restaurants were closed to the public, Moffitt said.

“We are also very active with the wholesalers involved with the USDA’s Farmers to Families (Food Box) program, as pears make a great addition to food boxes,” he said.

More bagged fruit?

As the upcoming season approaches, the industry likely will be selling more bagged fruit, thanks to COVID-19, said Dan Davis, director of business development with Wenatchee, Wash.-based Starr Ranch Growers.

“COVID has certainly moved the needle towards more packaged product and away from bulk,” he said. 

“Our bag movement is up over 40% year-over-year for the same time frame and continues to trend further in that direction. A combination of food-safety concerns and limited time in retail stores have people reaching for quicker grab-and-go options, and we’ve got a host of options we can provide retail to fit that need.”

Raleigh, N.C.-based grower-shipper L&M Cos., which operates a branch in Union Gap, Wash., has made its own accommodations to the COVID-19 crisis, said John Long, Union Gap-based director of sales and operations.

“The customers are taking a lot more products in bags, especially in the food box programs, and we’ve sold a lot more pears in 2- or 3-pound bags than we’ve ever sold in the past,” he said. 

“The business on bigger fruit — 100s, 110s and larger, don’t go into bags very well, and there’s been a little bigger impact on business than some would have liked.”

L&M, like other operations, also has seen to worker safety, Long said.

“Everyone is very concerned with employee safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic and are struggling to keep employees safe in the workplace; this is not an easy task, but our packinghouses are working in conjunction with county health departments to ensure best practices are followed.” 

The pandemic appeared mid-March, when last year’s pears were still being promoted, said Brianna Shales, senior marketing manager with Wenatchee, Wash.-based grower-shipper Stemilt Growers LLC.

“Supply lines balanced out relatively quickly for pears and we aren’t anticipating any issues with the new crop this fall,” she said. 

Packaging will be “a great vehicle for retailers” during the pandemic, Shales said.

“Fortunately, we’ve been on the forefront of that and have a well-developed brand called Lil Snappers,” she said. “These 3-pound pouch bags transformed bag sales for the pear category, and continue to help retailers boost the average pear purchase size at retail.”

Yakima, Wash.-based grower-shipper Sage Fruit Co. also has seen an uptick in demand for packaged product, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing.

“COVID is not known to be transferred through food. However we have seen an increase in demand for packaged product over bulk since March,” he said. 

“Packaged items provide less exposure to other shoppers when on the retail shelf. They are also easy for grab and go and make for a simple online purchase for those that are participating in grocery pick-up or delivery.”

Confident about sales

Concern about how pear sales will go is common across the region, but there doesn’t seem to be any basis for such worry, said Jeff Heater, board member with Odell, Ore.-based Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers and crop consultant with Western Ag Improvement LLC in Hood River, Ore.

“We went into cherry season with a big question mark and found one of the better cherry markets we’d had in decades,” he said.

“We shouldn’t have trouble getting enough pickers; it’s is a light crop,” he said in late July. 

“Overall, people are optimistic because pear prices have been pretty low, so a light crop should help prices rebound.”

The pandemic has boosted sales of fresh produce in general, and pears should benefit, as well, said Blake Belknap, vice president of sales with Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co.

“The pear category is no exception to that momentum — consumers are shopping less frequently and purchasing more volume in-store due to being home preparing more meals and health-consciously snacking,” he said.

The pandemic will change promotional plans, though, said Mac Riggan, director of marketing with Chelan, Wash.-based grower-shipper Chelan Fresh.

“As an industry, I don’t think we’ll be doing anywhere near as many demos; we’ll be doing a lot of social media.” 


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Northwest pear grower-shippers prepare to market lighter crop in 2020