Uprooting the orchards, small pear farmers are turning away

ROGUE VALLEY, Ore.– A once-thriving industry for small farmers in the Rogue Valley is starting to become less and less intriguing.

Over the years, more and more pear farmers have been turning away from the industry and uprooting their orchards. If you’ve driven on any of the back roads passing farmland in the valley, chances are you may have seen scenes like this.

Chopped and uprooted by the acre, pear orchards – an icon of the Rogue Valley – are slowly fading away.

Ron Meyer, a third-generation pear farmer, has witnessed the decline of the small farmer over the years. Meyer Orchards was built by his grandfather around 1910 and spans nearly 100 acres today. He says when his grandfather started the farm there were about 400 pear farmers ranging from small to large in size. Now, he estimates there might be eight.

“On a good year you just might break even and you just can’t make a living doing that,” said Meyer.

Meyer says if you need to make money, the only farms doing that are the ones with thousands of acres. The last good year Meyer Orchards had was in 1989 but that means he was barely turning a profit at that point too. The last four years Meyer says have been disastrous.

“If you’re gonna have 1,000 acres and you’re only going to show a 2 or 3 percent return, you better find some other place to invest your money,” he said.

Meyer is in his 80’s and has turned over the day to day operations to his son Kirt. But like many others, they’re starting to wind things down. Meyer says he’d like to see his son continue running the farm but if there’s no money in it, he doesn’t want him to get stuck doing it for the rest of his life.

“A lot of younger farmers that wanted to continue the business like myself wanted to continue,” said Kirt. “But we’re now forced to look for other career choices.”

Small pear farmers have faced a costly uphill battle to turn a profit. Many farmers say the lack of skilled local labor has been a particularly difficult part. Meyer Orchard, like many other small farms, is having trouble finding people to do the pruning and maintenance work throughout the year and picking come harvest season. They’ve had to turn to foreign workers through the H2-A program.

The problem is they are regulated to pay those workers a higher rate and make sure they’re housed and fed as well. On top of all the other expenses of running a farm, they say they’re margins are very slim.

“Small farmers like ourselves will all be gone in the near future and the only ones that will be surviving are the larger corporations,” said Kirt.

The Meyers believe this isn’t the total end of pears in the Rogue Valley. Larger companies will be able to do well and one farm may soon own most of the orchards left but they say no single farm can survive solely on pears like they used to.

Many smaller farms have begun selling or leasing off their land or trying to grow new products.

But farmers like Ron and his son don’t see any way of making living by growing something different on such a small scale. Instead, Ron is telling his family to leave pears behind. Meyer Orchards says this season will be it’s last before they begin uprooting their trees.

They expect in the next five years the last several small pear farms will also move away from the industry.

When asked what his grandfather and father might think of the state of the pear industry in the valley, Meyer says they probably would have told him the same thing he’s telling his son.

“Looking back,” he said. “I should have done something different.”

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