I had always thought of pears as a fall fruit. Like apples. I think most of us put apples and pears into the same mental basket in terms of their growing season. Turns out that pears get harvested in July and August and are kept in cold storage and shipped throughout the fall and into winter. Considering this, it's almost a year since that dinner before I could watch the pear harvest and write about it. Here in the valley the main pear harvest is ending this week. Starting in August the harvesting will move to the other pear areas of Lake and Mendocino counties.
All along the Sacramento river, from Sac into the Delta, there are pear orchards. The first pear trees came with the settlers and were planted in the 1850's. My harvest visit was at the properties of David J. Elliot and Son and their Stillwater Orchards near Courtland. The family is now into their sixth generation with their oldest pear trees being 160 years old! That's right. They have 160 year old trees still going strong.
My visit started in reverse in that we started at the packing facility with a guided tour by Richard Elliot. He tells me they have 1,500 acres of orchards with 1,100 of those being pear. The other 400 acres have cherries, apples, and kiwi. But for now they are full swing into pear harvest season and the packing shed is bustling.
Richard explains that the harvest will run about 4-6 weeks. They had started the first week in July. Now they were harvesting Bartletts, their most popular. They are a vibrant green, versus golden, because they are picked before they ripen on the tree.
After a quick rinse, they are sorted. Misshapen and marred fruit will go to the cannery while the pears that are large and shaped well go to fresh packing.
The fresh pack pears are given one of those tiny fruit labels and then are wrapped in paper and nested into shipping boxes which will go to places like Costco, Safeway, Sam's Club, and more.
The boxes are moved into the chill rooms to cool them as quickly as possible. The rooms are 31 degrees. Ozone is circulated to help deter bacteria. The pears will stay in storage until ordered and shipped out.
After the Bartletts are harvested the Boscs will be next. Then the other four specialty varietals: Comice, Seckel, French Butter, and Star Crimson.
Pear growers are lucky in that any of the "ugly" fruit can be canned or turned into juice. The ugly Bartletts will be canned while the other varieties will go to juicing. Think about those canned fruits you buy in the supermarket. Many of them are packed in pear juice. Richard explains that pear juice is popular to use because the flavor is very mild and won't overwhelm other flavors.
Richard's son, another Richard, takes us out to the orchards to watch some harvesting. Pears are hand-picked and the workers are in teams of about 10 pickers each. They are paid by the "piece rate" system as a team effort. Each crate they fill together will be counted and then calculated out. Richard says that some teams are capable of picking as high as $26 per hour. Their day runs from about 5 a.m. sunrise until noon-ish.
It's notable that all of the California pear farms are family owned. In the era of Big Ag, it's nice to be supportive of the family farmers. It's also good to know that the next generation, such as the younger Richard who is in his 20s, is happy to stay in the family business.
Some of the pear farms, along with some Delta wineries, are open for visitors. You can find out which at sacriverdeltagrown.org.