Q: Tell us about McCarthy Family Farm’s pear growing heritage.
A: I’m a second-generation pear grower taking on the challenge and rewards of managing our family farm in Mt Hood, Oregon, a premier region for pear cultivation. The family’s legacy on the mountain started in 1910 when my great grandfather homesteaded a ranch, maintained a small pear orchard and built the Mt Hood Lodge for vacationers from Portland. My grandparents moved back to the ranch in the 1960s, followed by my parents and family in the 1980s, when my father committed to the year-round business of growing pears. As the pear doesn’t fall far from the tree, after earning a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in agricultural and resource economics at University of California-Davis, and serving as orchard manager at Harry & David, I returned in 2013 to run what is now the family farm. Today, we are mid-size operation and manage approximately 350 acres of pear trees that produce just over 5,000 tons of pears annually.
Q: What other roles do you play in the Northwest pear industry?
A: In addition to managing the family farm, I currently serve as president of the Washington-Oregon Canned Pear Association, and I’m seated on the boards of the Hood River Grower Shipper Association and Hood River Supply Association. While McCarthy Family Farm concentrates on pear production, we also grow apples, flowers, and cherries.
Q: Can you describe the pear growing cycle? We understand it can take decades to realize your crop’s full potential.
A: In the pear business you plant pears for your heirs! The tree fruit business, especially pears, has an extremely long life cycle. For example, the trees that I plant now will be fully mature in 10 to 15 years and can stay in production up to 80 years. Our goal is to have all of our trees 50 years and younger. The trees are planted in blocks, which helps manage the orchard as a whole.
Q: And day-to-day operations?
A: Growing pears is a 12-month operation driven by the seasons and every season brings different challenges. In late winter, pruning is critical as the foundation for tree health and new growth and productivity. In April and May, the busiest time on the farm, we are wrapping up pruning and planting new trees. We are also focused on frost alerts and pest management as the flowers emerge and turn into small fruitlets. As the weather warms, irrigation ramps up and bees are introduced for pollination. It’s a race. Then, at summer’s peak, we begin to critically assess fruit maturity and plan for harvest.
On our farm, we are moving to a trellis system where we trim and train the trees to allow better light penetration inside the tree canopy. The trellised trees yield fruit more consistent in size and quality. We also manage natural enemies/pests with integrated pest management solutions that are used throughout the pear industry. Natural, organic clay sprays discourage pests from laying eggs and walking on the pear shoots early in the season.
Q: How have cultivation practices changed since your grandfather’s day?
A: Growing practices have evolved since the 1930s and 40s with sustainability at the forefront. The pear industry continues to advance horticulturally, using more efficient systems that require less labor and result in higher yield.
Growing pears is still a hand-harvest industry, but we use technology to implement sustainability efforts, monitor our crop, and manage labor. These include: GPS-guided driverless auto-steer tractors that plant the trees in straight rows with optimum spacing; automated irrigation managed through a cloud-based system; and frost fans and propane heaters that provide protection against frost.
Growers are also using micro weather stations, with cellular or internet connections, and the data gathered from a network of 70 stations in the area uploads to the cloud every 15 minutes for real-time weather data on wind, rain, and temperatures in the various microclimates in the Columbia River Gorge ecosystem.
Q: Can you update us on current challenges facing the pear industry?
A: One of our biggest challenges right now come from regulatory changes driven by urban populations. We know the intentions are good, but recognize that most non-farmers haven’t had the opportunity to learn how food is grown and produced, so we work hard to educate. A mentor of mine encourages policy makers to, “tell us what you want to achieve and let us help you figure out how to get there.” A lot of farmers have advanced science degrees and share the same goals about preserving the land for future generations. Being a shepherd to the land and the trees and the people who work on the farm is key to a flourishing industry.
Q: What pear varieties are found in your orchards?
A: We grow several varieties of pears for the fresh market, the most familiar of which is the Bartlett pear. About 25% of our pear crop is Bartlett and 15% of them go to canneries. The Bartlett is an heirloom variety that has the perfect texture and sweetness for canning.
Q: Can you share your favorite way to enjoy Pacific Northwest Canned Pears?
A: About twice a week, I like eating canned pears with cottage cheese for breakfast. It’s a great way to start the day.