Source: Eric Mortenson / Capital Press

HOOD RIVER — Oregon and Washington’s combined pear harvest will approach a record this year, with growers and packers reporting a heavy yield of large, high-quality fruit.

Estimates made in June, well before picking began, projected a fresh market harvest of 19.8 million 44-pound boxes, the standard measurement unit. The estimate was 4 percent larger than the five-year average, and would have made it the third largest crop grown by the Wenatchee and Yakima regions of Washington and the Mid-Columbia and Medford regions of Oregon.

The record is 20.5 million boxes, set in 2011-12. Since the June estimate was made for 2013-14, excellent growing conditions resulted in a bigger crop than expected.

Some growers were hard-pressed to find enough pickers at peak harvest in mid-September, when the Hood River Valley alone employed about 1,800 pickers a day. The crunch has passed, however. Growers in the upper valley, where fruit comes on later than at lower elevations, will finish picking soon, said Jean Godfrey, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers in Hood River.

“We have a very heavy crop, a beautiful crop, larger than normal,” Godfrey said.

Nathan Duckwall, assistant production manager at Duckwall Fruit in Odell, said his company may pack 10 percent more boxes than last year.

“We had really good growing conditions this year, a good hot summer,” he said. “The size of the fruit is really big, too.”

The larger the pears, the fewer it takes to fill a box, which results in increased box production numbers.

No matter the final production numbers, the harvest marks another good turn for Oregon and Washington pear growers.

Duckwall, the third generation of his family involved in the company since it formed in 1919, said the industry “goes up and down with the economy of the world, just like anything else,” but has largely stabilized since the recession.

About one-third of the crop that moves through Duckwall is exported. Top export markets include Mexico, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Colombia, Hong Kong and India. The latter is one of the strongest growth market for Northwest growers, according to Pear Bureau Northwest, a non-profit marketing firm that represents about 1,600 growers in Oregon and Washington.

China opened its door to U.S. pears for the first time in February, and is projected to become a top 10 market for Northwest growers within three years, according to the Pear Bureau.

Pears packed by Duckwall were the first into China, Nathan Duckwall said. He’s cautious about the future impact of that market, however.

“I don’t think it will be that big,” he said. “It’s significant, but it’s not a game changer.”

While market and growing conditions have been good recently, this fall’s temporary labor shortage is an on-going concern. Godfrey, of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers, said it is more difficult for pickers to enter the U.S. from Mexico. The federal government needs to simplify the work visa program, she said.

“It’s becoming an annual problem, it’s tighter to find labor,” she said.

In addition, farm laborers who immigrated a generation ago and stayed in the U.S. are reaching retirement age and are not being replaced. Their children, having grown up here, have other opportunities, Godfrey said.

“That’s why people come to this country, to have a better life for their children,” she said. “We hear that from our workers, they don’t want them to have to do that heavy labor.

“It is the American dream,” she said.