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 1800’s. The planting of fruit trees saw a rapid expansion from small scattered home orchards to the first commercial orchard (Eden Valley) that was planted in 1885 by J. H. Stewart and J. D. Whitman.
Apples enjoyed a tremendous boom during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s peaking at about 400 growers with about 10,000 acres in 1910. By 1930 over 94% of the apple acreage had been removed and pears became the number one orchard crop of the Rogue Valley. The change from apples to pears was due primarily to the fact that our warm days, cool nights and heavy clay soils are more suited to growing pears than apples.
The Rogue Valley early on had a corner on pear production, growing over 24 varieties at its peak. It was noted in the historic records that Medford set quality standards in packing pears and was recognized for that reason by the buyers. The Rogue Valley was the first and largest red pear growing region in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970’s, which saw returns triple over green varieties.
In addition, the Rogue Valley set the standard for the quality of Bosc and Comice pears, which have become the two main varieties grown today. The district capitalized on fresh pears which returned the most for their investment, and also found an outlet for our cull pears by establishing Sabroso Co., which made a juice concentrate that was shipped all over the world, gaining the Governor’s award in 1982 as the state’s Outstanding International Marketing Company.
In 1914, Harry and David Rosenberg established Harry and 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 and David named their luxurious pears "Royal Riviera" to set them apart from varieties grown elsewhere. Today Harry and David are known as America's premier direct marketer of fruit, food gifts and as one of the nation's oldest catalog mail order companies. In addition, they are the largest employer in the Rogue Valley.
Over the years there have been several events in fruit production in the Pacific Northwest and California that have caused the Rogue Valley pear industry to lose market share and acreage. The first was the Alar scare on apples in 1989, which caused a lot of apple acreage to be removed in Washington state, to be replaced largely by pears . Similarly, the over-planting and over-production of apples that occurred in about 1999 led to further pear planting. Further impact came from urban encroachment and expansion of our cities into farm lands in the Rogue Valley itself.
As apple acreage was removed, orchardists in Washington, Oregon and California looked to other commodities that were still providing a good return in the marketplace. First they planted red and Bosc pears which were Southern Oregon’s niche in the pear market and later they branched out into growing wine grapes, which were popular across the nation. As the cities in the region expanded with more and more people moving into the area after retirement, many orchards on the city borders were removed and sold to build new houses.
Today, while the pear acreage in Southern Oregon has been reduced, the production has not shrunk to the same extent. This is due to the planting of high density orchards that replaced less productive ones. Pears are still the largest agricultural commodity, bringing in 29-35 million dollars annually. That figure does not include pears sold from the Harry & David gift catalog. In a study conducted by Oregon State University and the Washington Tree Fruit Industry in 2001, 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 chart below compares the pear industry of the 1930’s with the present.
|Value of Pear Crop||$3,000,000||$38,827,000||$31,281,000 1|
|Number of Growers||400||32||15|
|Typical Size||1-325 acres||5-2500 acres||5-2000 acres|
|Total Production||43,537 tons||67,798 tons||66,175 tons 1|
|Production per Acre||3.7 tons||11 tons||14 tons|
|Trees per Acre||65-70||300-1400||300-1200|
|Main Varieties in Order of importance||
The Rogue Valley (latitude 42° 22’ N/longitude 122° 52’ W) is approximately 1400 feet above sea level, and is protected by surrounding mountains. The area is favored with a mild climate, summer temperatures average a low of 50° F and a high of 83° F. Summer temperatures can reach as high as 115° F and drop by as much as 50° degrees at night. On average, the valley receives 18 inches of rainfall with most occurring from October to May.
There are over 80 soil types mapped in the Rogue Valley. A number 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. They 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 dry land farmed. Today there are three main irrigation companies: Medford, Talent and Rogue River serving over 38,000 acres. In order to deliver water to the valley there are 7 mountain storage lakes and over 650 miles of canals. Early irrigated orchards used flood irrigation, but today 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%). On average the valley has 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, twospotted 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 a large acreage of pears in the Rogue Valley. In response to this disease outbreak, Jackson County and fruit growers appointed inspectors to assist growers in an eradication program. The organization of growers that was formed at that time 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 staff which were moved to that location. 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, ten Extension agents, and 10-14 support staff.