The first tree fruits (apples, pears, cherries, peaches, prunes and walnuts) were brought across the Plains in covered wagons to Ashland and grown from seeds by the Billings family in the mid-1800s. Fruit tree cultivation expanded from small, scattered home orchards to the first commercial orchard when J. H. Stewart and J. D. Whitman planted their Eden Valley orchard in 1885.
Apple production boomed during the late 1800s and early 1900s, peaking at about 400 growers with about 10,000 acres in 1910. By 1930, however, over 94% of the apple acreage had been removed and pears became the number-one orchard crop in the Rogue Valley as growers realized that the region's warm days, cool nights and heavy clay soils are better suited to growing pears than apples.
Rogue Valley growers soon produced over 24 varieties of pears and were known for their high-quality packing standards. The Rogue Valley was the first and largest red pear growing region in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s.
Rogue Valley growers set the standard for the quality of Bosc and Comice pears, which are the two main varieties grown today. Area growers also found an outlet for cull pears by establishing Sabroso Co., which made a juice concentrate that was shipped all over the world and won an award in 1982 as the state’s Outstanding International Marketing Company.
In 1914, Harry and David Rosenberg established Harry & David, a company that specializes in the Comice pear, for which there was a good export market to the grand hotels and restaurants of Europe. Harry & David named their luxurious pears "Royal Riviera" to set them apart from varieties grown elsewhere. Today Harry & David is known as a premier direct marketer of fruit and food gifts and is one of the nation's oldest catalog mail-order companies. Harry & David is one of the largest employers in the Rogue Valley.
Several events in recent years eroded the Rogue Valley pear industry's market share and acreage. The Alar scare in 1989 prompted many Washington growers to replace their apple orchards with pears. Apple overplanting in the late 1990s led to further pear planting. Urban encroachment into farmlands in the Rogue Valley itself also had an impact as many orchards were removed and sold to build new houses.
As apple acreage was removed, orchardists in Washington, Oregon and California planted red and Bosc pears, which were southern Oregon’s niche in the pear market, and later grew wine grapes, which were popular across the nation.
Although pear acreage in southern Oregon has shrunk, high-density orchards have replaced less-productive ones, allowing pears to remain the largest agricultural commodity in the region. Pears bring in $29 million to $35 million annually. (That figure does not include pears sold from the Harry & David gift catalog.) A 2001 Oregon State University and the Washington Tree Fruit Industry study found that the Jackson County pear industry accounts for about 10% of the nation’s total production of pears and 11% of the total economic activity of the county.
The following chart compares the pear industry of the 1930s with the present.
|Value of pear crop||$3 million||$38 million||$31 million (Does not include the value of Harry & David gift pears)|
|Number of growers||400||32||15|
|Typical size||1–325 acres||5–2500 acres||5–2,000 acres|
|Total production||43,537 tons||67,798 tons||66,175 tons (Does not include the value of Harry & David gift pears)|
|Production per acre||3.7 tons||11 tons||14 tons|
|Trees per acre||65–70||300–1400||300–1,200|
|Main Varieties in Order of importance||
The Rogue Valley (latitude 42° 22’ N/longitude 122° 52’ W) is approximately 1,400 feet above sea level and is protected by surrounding mountains. Summer temperatures average a low of 50°F and a high of 83°F, although temperatures can reach 115°F and drop by as much as 50° degrees at night. The valley receives about 18 inches of rainfall, with most occurring from October to May.
There are over 80 soil types in the Rogue Valley. Many are high in clay content and are characterized by low water infiltration rates and poor internal drainage. Most of these soils are on the east side of the valley where many of the oldest pear orchards are located. The soils shrink and swell in drying and wetting cycles and as a group are classed as Vertisols.
Soils on the west side of the valley include loams, silt loams, clay loams and lighter-textured soils of granite origin. Valued for their production of a wide range of field, vegetable and specialty seed crops, some of the newer orchards are found on these soils.
Early orchards in the Rogue Valley were dryland farmed. Today, three main irrigation companies — Medford, Talent and Rogue River — serve over 38,000 acres with water delivered from seven mountain storage lakes and over 650 miles of canals. Over 95% of the orchards are sprinkler irrigated.
Pear bloom typically starts in the first week of April and lasts two to three weeks, depending on the season. Harvest for early varieties of pear begins in the first week of August with winter pear harvest beginning a month later.
Frost season starts about mid-March (just prior to bloom) and lasts until mid-May. Pears are protected by one of several frost-protection systems: wind machines in combination with heaters or sprinklers (76%), and sprinklers (24%). The valley averages 18–20 nights of scattered heating (wind machines alone) and 5–10 nights of general heating where supplemental heating is needed.
Over 90% of Rogue Valley orchards have some form of Integrated Pest Management program to monitor pests. Major insect pests found in the valley are codling moth, pear psylla, two-spotted and yellow mites, pear rust mite and San Jose scale.
Fire blight and pear scab diseases can occur during the spring. Several postharvest diseases also affect pears during cold storage. Pears are stored at 29-31°F, often in an atmosphere of reduced oxygen and elevated CO2.
Fruit Growers’ League
In 1913 a severe fire blight epidemic destroyed large acreages of pears in the Rogue Valley. In response, Jackson County and fruit growers appointed inspectors to assist growers in an eradication program. That organization of growers is now known as the Fruit Growers’ League of Jackson County.
Oregon State University
With the development of the Rogue Valley as a major apple and pear production area came the establishment of Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Experiment Station in 1911 and the Extension Service office in 1914. The name of the experiment station was changed in 1994 to the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center to include the OSU Extension Service staffers. Today the OSU Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center is located west of Medford and houses two research scientists working in entomology, plant pathology and horticulture, 10 Extension agents, and 10–14 support staff.