Using industry funding, Dhingra has been working with Crunch Pak to test sliced pears. After figuring out how much of the compound to apply, they performed a large-scale taste trial at the Food Innovation Center in Portland. So far, he’s seen a positive response. They’ll conduct tests for another year while waiting for a patent to be finalized. From there, his hope is that it gets licensed for production.
Moffitt, who is optimistic yet conservative in his expectations of what slices could do for the pear market, guesses they could help the market grow by 5 percent in the near future. “It really depends on which variety and which sizes are pulled out,” Moffitt says. Growers will sell fruit in whatever form they can, whether fresh or processed, like in a fruit cup. Fresh pears make the most money, but not every pear makes the cut for grocery stores—it depends on the size and condition. So selling sliced pears may not fetch a higher price than selling a fresh, whole pear, but it could still mean a higher price than other processing options.
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In Washington’s Wenatchee Valley, Josh Koempel turns his pickup onto a gravel path flanked by pear trees. His orchard is a picture of progress in the pear world, he says: Three generations of trees exist in this one area, and the differences in how they were planted are startling if you know what to look for.
Like everything else about pears, the best way to grow the fruits is poorly understood. For decades, apples and cherries have benefitted from trees bred to be small, because shorter trees are easier to work with. Growing systems that space their branches uniformly apart have allowed apple growers to plant trees closer together in ways that capture more light, so they produce more quality fruit in less space.
Pears, meanwhile, still grow on taller trees that take up more space. The lack of innovation stems partly from how reliably pear trees produce fruit in the first place. “Pears are pretty steady in terms of return. … Apples are more volatile. Cherries are crazy,” Koempel says. “If it comes over and rains today on top of a cherry crop, the cherries will absorb water so fast, they’ll crack.” Because growers are content with the fruit’s stability, they’re less inclined to change and innovate. “Sometimes your greatest strengths are also your biggest weaknesses,” Koempel says.
But like Dhingra, whom Koempel met in 2007 and convinced to map the pear genome, Koempel doesn’t want to be content with a consistent but underwhelming output; he wants pears to be stars. He’s trying to see how densely he can plant pear trees to get the best, most consistent fruit while making picking as efficient as possible. In his orchard, the oldest section of pear trees includes plenty of elbow room and gnarled branches jutting out in every direction; the aisle is probably big enough for Koempel’s pickup. Another block, which his dad put in about 20 years ago, includes trees planted a little closer together with branches that grow with slightly more uniformity but still cast shadows on fruit growing lower on the tree. The newest section is an experiment. It consists of a few rows of one pear variety, then another, in a system that’s used by apple growers but doesn’t exist for pears. The trees are trained to grow two-dimensionally on a trellis, with branches reaching to the sides but not to the front or back. As they grow, Koempel coaxes them out diagonally, leaning toward the open aisle between rows, so the fruit captures light more evenly.