Grower Interviews: Eric Olson
Pacific Northwest Pear Grower
How did you get started in the pear business?
My dad bought a 36-acre ranch in the Yakima Valley a month after I was born. After military service, my wife and I took over the ranch in 1976. We replanted trees and also started a honey bee pollination business. Once we got settled there, we purchased a 600 acre ranch about three miles from the home ranch.
What pear varieties do you grow?
We grow Bartlett and Bosc pears on about 80 acres. We grow the Bartlett pears for the canned pear market, and we grow Bosc pears for pollination and also for the fresh pear market. We also grow 132 acres of cherries. I love growing pears and cherries.
How do you plant your orchard for yield and to manage pollination?
My preferred planting is in a pattern of four rows of Bartlett and two of Bosc trees, and I learned over the years that with high density planting, the bees will not go across rows, they go up and down the rows, which is more efficient. High density planting makes it much easier to manage the work in the orchard more efficiently, and we are able to start picking when the trees are 3 to 4 years old.
What about bees?
My wife and I built up our honey bee pollination business to 18,000 hives before we sold it, so we learned a lot about bees and really enjoyed it. One in three of the plant foods that we eat are pollinated, and bees are particular about pollen. With pears, the blooms come out gradually, which allows a longer window for pollination, but bees are particular about the pollen. For pears, when the pollen grains are a pinkish-purple color, the bees won’t touch it. But when the pollen grains turn tan the bees just go crazy. When the pollen turns dark brown the bees won’t touch it. Luckily pear blooms come out gradually, which allows a longer window to pollinate. Some crops are easy to pollinate and some are hard. Bing cherries, for example, are really hard to pollinate, and require more hives to do the job.
In my experience, the bright spot in tree fruit is pears because it’s consistent. You just have to take care of the trees and keep them healthy.
You said that you like to grow pears for the canning market. Why is that?
From a business standpoint I can get a 90% pack-out with Bartlett pears for canning. Unlike the fresh market, grading standards around cosmetic flaws are not as strict for pears that are canned. We can focus on the health of the trees and quality of the fruit vs having a cosmetically perfect pear.
How do you prune pear trees?
We prune pear trees during the winter, and for canned pears we prune for production (ton per acre) and for fresh we prune for better size and less marking on the fruit.
Has growing and harvesting pears changed over time?
Not a lot, the biggest factor is labor. We picked more than 1,000 ton this year, and I lost 100 ton of Bartletts because I couldn’t get them picked due to the labor shortage and also because I waited an extra five days and the pickers had already moved on to the Gala apple harvest.
What’s your favorite way to eat pears?
I’ve always like Bartlett pears best when they are canned, and Bosc is my favorite fresh pear variety.