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Pear growers struggle with poor returns and high costs

As early as the 8th century B.C., the Greek poet Homer referred to pears as a "gift of the gods." The familiar Bartlett pear came into existence in Berkshire, England in the 17th century, and pear seedlings came to America with the early colonists. Pears were later brought west in the California Gold Rush.

Dave Mostin has a family operated pear farm in Kelseyville, Calif., with some pear acreage that was planted at the turn of the century. These trees are still in production today. He also has trees planted in the early 1980's.

The last couple of years have been particularly difficult for Mostin. The announcement of filing for bankruptcy by the Tri Valley Growers marketing cooperative makes the processing side of delivery tough for its members, he says.

Adding to their problems is a depressed juice market. If fruit can't make cannery grade, it goes to juice or baby food. Processing usually brings only half to a third of the price for fresh market pears.

Pear prices have remained virtually un- changed over the last two decades, yet labor and production costs have skyrocketed. "If you adjust for inflation, we're probably getting 20 cents on the dollar," Mostin estimates.

The 2000 crop is considered a make-or-break season for many growers. "The market was really poor two years ago, plus we had weather problems. Last year the market was no better. Orchards were bulldozed out last fall and in the spring. It's horrible," he says, adding that with Tri Valley's situation, he foresees more pear orchards being removed.

For many growers it's come down to getting out of the pear business altogether. "What's happening is you're going deeper and deeper in debt until you're so far under that even if you have a good year, it won't pay the bills," he says.

"It could rebound quickly," Mostin continues, but with the way the foreign market situation is, he doesn't see that happening.

The pear industry has seen competition in recent years from the Southern Hemisphere when California pears are not in season. This gives stores a year-round supply and increases availability to the consumer.

Product awareness is important to consumers, and they will pick up pears more frequently, benefiting retailers, processors, and growers. But Mostin says the down side is that retailers may accumulate inventory in cold storage or on the shelves, so they reduce prices to move their stock. "That depresses the market, then we start selling in that kind of market and it doesn't help us."

No grower help Traditionally with a large crop, prices are lowered to increase movement. But this hasn't been the case in recent years. Although growers lower their prices, retail prices remain the same and the packer, shipper, broker, and retailer make money. The fundamentals of reducing prices to increase demand isn't helping at the grower level.

The consolidation of supermarket chains hasn't helped pear growers either. "It's just going to make the retailers stronger," Mostin says.

The marketing end is hard for Mostin and other growers. "I'm concentrating on production. I've got nothing to do with that other stuff, but they're killing me. Unless you become vertically integrated, and you own your own packing shed and storage, you're just stuck."

The biggest issue for Mostin now is the imbalance in competition worldwide. Production and labor costs in other countries are much less compared to the United States. "If we spend $10 an hour on labor, they may only spend half or a third of that, which means they can sell for a lower price and depress the market even more."

Along with higher labor and production costs are stringent pesticide regulations for U.S. growers, which leaves them at a competitive disadvantage. "Our state and federal regulators," Mostin says, "think it's important to protect the health and safety of our workers and provide safe food.

"But if the same time they hold us to costly, time-consuming, and return-impacting regulations, then it stands to reason foreign imports should be held to these same standards."

California has tougher regulations for chemical usage than other neighboring states, leaving California pear growers struggling to compete. "They take materials away from us that can be used in Arizona, Oregon, and Washington," Mostin says.

Alternative chemicals are available, but are they are generally more expensive and less effective. "I don't mind competing against Washington and Oregon. I don't mind competing against a foreign country, but I need a level playing field," Mostin says.

The future for chemical usage in California is bleak as Mostin sees it. He foresees increased restrictions in the years to come. "Any chemical that even comes close to questionable, they just completely drop. This is bad news for California pear growers, and either this situation is dealt with, or it becomes one more nail in the coffin."

The grower sees little relief on the horizon. In fact, he worries that another Northern Hemisphere foreign country might start producing pears and exporting them here. Direct competition from a source with no regulations and a cheap labor force would be another blow to the California pear industry.

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