Stemilt pears are Rushing Rivers™ pears and lucky to call the world’s two best-growing regions home. The Wenatchee River Valley and Entiat River Valley are known for producing pears of the highest quality. Follow pears through the seasons to learn how pears are grown, harvested, packed and shipped to your stores.
Where We Farm Rushing Rivers™ Pears
The best-tasting pears come from the Wenatchee River Valley and Entiat River Valley in Washington State. These locales run parallel to one another and are where Stemilt pears have called home since the early 1900s.
- Wenatchee River Valley, Washington: Located just west of Wenatchee, Washington, this growing region is known around the world for its ability to produce high-quality pears. Here, pear orchards are nestled in a valley and surrounded by the Cascade Mountains. The alpine mountains protect pears from the heat of the summer and supply good air drainage. Pear varieties like d’Anjou, Bartlett and Bosc thrive year after year in this unique growing locale.
- Entiat River Valley, Washington: This pear growing region is located just north of Wenatchee, Washington in the valley that follows the Entiat River. Similar to the Wenatchee River Valley, Entiat is a well-known region for producing clean, high-quality pears like the popular d’Anjou variety. The fertile soil, clean and consistent water supply, and cool climate provide the ideal combination for farmers to grow pears.
Planting a Pear Orchard
- Pears love an arid climate with volcanic soils and a plentiful water supply. River valleys with a gentle slope also help draw air across the trees, which help keeps them free from cold frost pockets, pests and fungal issues.
- The original pear farmers in Washington often said, “The best pear ground is where you can see pine trees when you are standing in the orchards.” This is because the slopes are higher where the pines are, which ensures better air-draws.
- Pear varieties need to be cross-pollinated by another variety, which means two types of pollen are required to set fruit. If you visited a d’Anjou orchard, you’d find rows of Bartlett pears scattered throughout the orchards. The same is true for the other varieties.
- Similar to apples, pears are planted with specific and tight spacing to maximize the land, with rows just wide enough to get equipment through the orchard.
- A season-long water source for irrigation is needed in all pear orchards. This water is delivered through timed impact sprinklers.
How Pear Orchards Are Cared for Through the Seasons
- Kaolin clay, an organic clay, is applied to trees in the spring to protect against psyllid and other insects that can disfigure fruit as it grows. This simple clay makes the trees look like a Christmas tree that has been flocked white. It’s a unique thing to see for a few weeks during the spring, and offers pear trees with important (and natural) insect protection.
- Feeding and adjustments to the irrigation systems happen during this time.
- Replants for any dead or injured trees take place now.
- Pear blossom and beehive placement in the orchards also occurs.
- An irrigation program is established during the summer to ensure the right growth of trees and fruit.
- Pear thinning occurs in the early summer to ensure a moderate (not heavy) set on the tree and good fruit sizing. Heavy-set trees generally lead to smaller fruit size.
- Pears tree limbs are either propped up with poles or tied up with twine to the trunk to prevent limb breakage in areas of heavy sets of fruit.
- Pear harvest at Stemilt occurs in the late summer and early fall. Tosca pears and Bartlett pears are the first off the tree.
- We apply compost to the base of the tree in certain pear orchards before leaves drop from the trees.
- Orchards go dormant and rest during winter, which is important for new crop vigor
- Pruning is very important in the winter months, as it will stage the vigor and fruiting surface of the tree to have balanced growth with a great crop.
- Compost will sit under the snow, where it mixes with the soils to feed the waking trees in spring.
Spring Is in the Air
- Stemilt pear orchards in the Upper Wenatchee River Valley and Entiat River Valley of Washington bloom in mid-April, with full bloom from April 22 to May 8
- Pear bloom occurs in lower elevations first and then higher elevations. Different varieties will bloom at slightly different times.
- The blossoms on pears trees are white with a yellow center.
- Blossoms for the new crop of pears actually develop during harvest the prior fall as short bud spurs.
- These occur on branches that are at least one year old, and near leaves and stems of current fruit. The new buds become visible after the leaves drop in late fall.
- Growers may thin blossoms from trees to balance the crop load and ensure peak fruit sizing.
- Apples and pears bloom at the same time in Washington State. They bloom after our cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots.
Protecting Bloom from Springtime Weather
Bloom is an important time in the orchard, and spring weather and frost is dangerous for pear blossoms. The following is how our growers protect bloom in an orchard:
- Frost protection often comes from wind machines that have blades spinning above the orchard.
- The movement of air by the fan blades prevents stagnant cold air pockets from settling at the tree level and killing the blossoms, which bear the crop.
- A single wind machine can protect up to 10 acres of orchards.
- The fan is typically powered by an industrial engine delivering 100 horsepower or more.
- Overhead irrigation is another common method of frost/freeze protection.
- Heat is released as water changes to ice, which keeps the orchards warmer than freezing. If supplied at an adequate rate, the water will keep the temperature of the plant at or near 32° F.
- Advantages of overhead irrigation include: lower operating cost, convenience of operation, and multiple uses including drought prevention and heat suppression in the warmer months.
Pollination with Bees
Bees are essential in growing new pears, as they pollinate the blossoms on pear trees each spring. Growers set out beehives when flowers just start to open. The hives are usually rented and kept on location for 4-5 days.
Bees prefer to forage within 300 feet of their hive, so there are usually 1-2 beehives per acre of pear orchards during bloom. Bees quickly work to transfer pollen from the anthers of a flower to the stigma of the same or other flowers to set or pollenize apple blossoms. After pollination set occurs, a new pear develops and begins to grow.
Cold, wet or windy weather can cause poor pollination and eventually reduce the expected pear crop in an orchard.
When We Harvest Pears
- Pear harvest begins in early to mid-August with the Tosca variety, and ends in late September with d’Anjou and Red d’Anjou pears. Each variety has its own unique start date.
- The timing of pear harvest is based on both variety and elevation. In terms of elevation, we begin with lower valley pears and end with those at higher elevations.
- Unlike apples, pears do not ripen fully on the tree. If they did, they would be gritty and hard when a person went to eat them.
- There are a variety of indicators to determine when pears are ready for harvest. We use bloom dates as a guide in planning harvest, and look for the fruit’s pressures to drop slightly to determine the best time to pick.
- Take a peek at pear harvest at Stemilt on our blog, The Stem.
How Pears Are Harvested
- Each Stemilt pear is hand-picked by an orchard crew member.
- To pick the fruit, the crew member gently twists the pear from the branch at the stem. The fruit is placed into a picking bag, which is emptied when full into large plastic bins located strategically in the orchard.
- Harvesting in the orchard is done on the ground and on short industrial steel ladders
- Once full, bins of pears are hauled by truckloads to storage rooms near our facilities.
- There, summer pear varieties like Bartlett and Starkrimson are hydrocooled quickly before they are put into storage or packed. Hydrocooling drenches the pears with ice cold water for several minutes to pull any late summer heat out of them. We also hydrocool sweet cherries.
- The bins of pears are put into pull-down refrigerated rooms to remove any remaining heat. The combination of hydrocooling and refrigerated rooms allows the fruit to keep its flavor, juice and unique texture for you to enjoy at home.
Quality Control and Receiving
- After harvest and cooling, Stemilt receives each bin of pears and takes it to a nearby packing or storage facility.
- Quality control checks on pears occur often. We check the fruit at receiving, while it waits in controlled atmosphere storage, during packing, and prior to shipping boxes of pears to its destination.
- Food safety procedures are a big part of quality control and are included in our Safe Quality Food program.
- Quality control is important in delivering juicy and flavorful pears to stores for you to enjoy.
How Stemilt Pears Are Packed
After harvest, Stemilt pears are either packed or stored in controlled atmosphere rooms. The following describes our process for receiving, storing and packing pears:
Step 1: Pear Bin Dump
- Bins of pears are emptied or “dumped” onto the packing line. The dumping process is actually quite gentle so that the fruit is not damaged.
- There are both water-assisted methods and dry dumping, depending on the facility. Water dumping can decrease bruising and abrasions by using chlorinated water to carry delicate produce.
Step 2: Pear Washing and Drying
- Next, pears are rinsed, washed with a food-grade soap and rinsed again. This removes any field dust from the fruit.
- The pears run through a bed of brushes that, along with large fans, dries the fruit thoroughly.
Step 3: Pear Quality Sorting
- After pears are washed, experienced sorters remove defected fruit from the line.
- Hand sorting fruit at every step of the packing process helps us ensure only the best pears make it into each box.
Step 4: Pear Sizing and Stickering
- Pears are then sized and sorted for quality automatically using the latest computer technology.
- Depending on pack type, the pears are stickered with a price look-up (PLU) number that can be scanned when you purchase them at the store.
- Pears are gently dropped into different packing stations based on the grade and size that the computer determined.
Step 5: Pears Are Packed
- The last step is to pack the pears in one of several pack types. This is done by hand in many cases, but also automatically.
- Stemilt pears are packed in bags, clamshells, trays and cartons.
- Each final package is stamped with important information about the origin of the fruit, including variety and grower number.
- Boxes of fruit are then put onto pallets and put back into cold rooms, where they await shipment on refrigerated trucks.
- Fruit is scrutinized and tested throughout the harvest, packing and shipping processes to ensure quality always comes first.
What Is Controlled Atmosphere Storage?
- Controlled atmosphere (CA) storage is a method that fresh fruit producers use to extend the seasonality of their fruits. It is the reason we can enjoy apples and pears well past harvest.
- CA storage began before World War II in England, when farmers discovered their produce kept longer in airtight rooms.
- CA storage is a not a chemical process. It involves keeping temperature, natural gases and humidity at controlled levels.
- Certain varieties of apples can be stored for 12 months in CA, while certain varieties of pears can be stored as long as 10 months.
The Recipe for Fresh Apples and Pears Well After Harvest
- Apples and pears convert starches to sugars by taking in oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide. In sealed CA rooms, this respiratory process is reduced due to the low oxygen levels in the room. The fruit is essentially asleep and the ripening process is on pause.
- Oxygen levels are reduced in CA rooms by infusing nitrogen gas, from the approximate 21% found in the air we breathe down to 1-2%.
- Temperatures in CA rooms are kept at a consistent 32 to 36 ° F with 95% humidity. Carbon dioxide levels are tightly controlled.
- Exact conditions of each room vary based on the apple or pear variety inside.
- We research specifications for each variety, which are then monitored by computers to keep conditions consistent and fruit quality at an optimum condition for each room.
- The length of storage is determined by looking at starch levels in apples and pears at harvest. The higher the starch levels, the longer the fruit can be stored.
- Once a CA room is opened for packing, the fruit wakes from its resting state and the conversion of starches to sugars starts again. By the time the fruit gets to your stores, it is perfectly crisp and full of flavor.
Short-Term Cold Storage
- Another method of cold storage is used in the short term.
- Short-term cold storage is where bins of apples, pears, cherries and summer fruits are put into refrigerated rooms for a short time while they wait to be packed or shipped. This is very common.
- Short-term cold storage differs from long-term because the rooms are not sealed off and the atmosphere in the room does not change.
Smaller CA Rooms and More of Them
- Apple storage and pear storage CA rooms vary in size from 800 bin capacity to 3,000 bin capacity.
- Stemilt has over 250 storage rooms, most of which are small in size (800 to 1,500 bin capacity).
- Smaller CA rooms allow us to quickly fill and seal rooms at harvest. This allows us to put the fruit to sleep quickly to assure the highest quality later in the season.
- Another advantage of small CA rooms is that we have more flexibility when choosing which rooms to open. Once a room is open, the fruit begins to respire and ripen. Opening small rooms often for packing is ideal for fruit quality.
- A bin of fruit yields an average of 18 cartons of apples and 22 cartons of pears. That means a CA room holds anywhere from 14,400 cartons to 66,000 cartons of fruit.