Cannery pears in decline

Changing market presents challenges for Vancouver's Northwest Packing

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Most years, the pears harvested from Washington and Oregon fields begin arriving at Vancouver's Northwest Packing Co. around mid-August and keep coming into November. But this year's harvest started early, and today the last pears will flow through a dizzying web of machinery to be peeled, sliced, diced, and canned for a steadily shrinking consumer market.

"The pears are of excellent quality -- the best we've seen in a number of years," said Matt Jones, president and CEO of the Neil Jones Food Company, owner of Northwest Packing, during a Friday walk-through of the bustling, noisy plant at the Port of Vancouver. "There just aren't as many as we'd like."

The smaller size of this year's cannery crop of Bartlett pears can be explained by its quality and changing consumer tastes, Jones said.

Ideal weather conditions helped produce large, tasty pears that could easily be sold to the fresh-fruit market. That rising demand for fresh fruit isn't a weather-driven

blip: It's part of a long-term trend as more people choose fresh fruit and as Northwest farmers opt to produce more profitable crops, such as Honeycrisp apples or wine grapes. Industry-wide, the volume of processed cannery pears has dropped from 180,000 tons a decade ago to about 130,000 tons today, Jones said.

Northwest Packing, now 40 years old, processes other fruits including cherries, cranberries and plums for canning, juices, and sauces. The pear harvest requires about 425 workers for a period of about 90 days, Jones said. Many will be laid off after today, Jones said.

On Friday, the company's large industrial building was filled with a blur of pears moving through a quick, multi-step process of sorting, cleaning, peeling and coring, dicing or slicing into halves, canning, cooking, and cooling. The entire cycle takes 75 minutes, including one hour in the cooking and cooling process.

The finished fruit is enough to fill 15 to 20 trucks and multiple rail cars each day during peak canning season, Jones said. The Neil Jones Food Company has its own house brand, Oregon Trail, but much of the fruit is sold to retail grocers for their house brands, hospitals, and the U.S. government for childhood nutrition programs or military personnel.

In recent years two Northwest food processors have closed, leaving only three including Northwest Packing, Jones said. And the other two have changed ownership, creating a major transition in an industry that had long been known for its stability.

But while the reduced competition provides some breathing space, Jones said his company still faces serious price pressures. He said the company, which also operates two tomato processing plants in California, is looking for ways to even out its workflow and create efficiencies in a business with a thin profit margin.

Jones, who is 42, says he's proud of the company his Welsh immigrant father created 40 years ago and wants to keep it going strong at its Vancouver location.

"Our No. 1 focus is to figure out how to be more competitive in a global market that adds pressure to (profit) margins," Jones said. "We are very committed to the community and want to be here another 40 years, but we have to find better ways to do things."