The Northwest pear crop remains on track for record volumes, outstanding quality and big sizes, grower-shippers and industry officials said.

The latest estimate puts the crop at 19.8 million boxes, just a hair over the 1997-98 crop, the current record-holder, said Kevin Moffitt, president of Pear Bureau Northwest, Milwaukie, Ore. Through Sept. 11, about 466,000 boxes had been shipped, up from 439,000 last year at the same time, he said.

The volumes, Moffitt said, are being matched by quality.

“The fruit that’s coming off is big and very, very clean, with a bright and shiny finish,” he said. “Growers are saying it’s the cleanest they’ve seen in years.”

It’s been four or five years since Steve Reisenhauer, sales manager for Sage Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash., has seen such a good combination of quality, size profile and volumes. Bartletts were peaking on 100s and larger and anjous on 90s or larger, with the vast majority of fruit being packed No. 1 grade.

Sage expected to switch from regular-storage to controlled-atmosphere bartletts in mid-October, Reisenhauer said. The company expected to pack its first anjous the week of Sept. 21.

Pears are not always the easiest commodity to sell consumers on, particularly during a recession, said Bob Mast, marketing director for Columbia Marketing International Corp., Wenatchee, Wash.

Nevertheless, the 2009-10 marketing season was getting off on the right foot, he said.

“All the stars are aligning for it to be a great pear season, and consumers should benefit,” he said. “We have a huge opportunity this year to get retailers and consumers excited.”

Columbia Marketing has added additional retailers to its preconditioned pear program, which should strengthen demand, Mast said. The company will roll out a new point-of-sale display this year that will be shipped to retailers along with their pears. Those two factors, plus the outstanding quality, bode well for markets, he said.

Sales in mid-September were slightly ahead of last year, a good sign, given the size of the crop, Moffitt said.

“We have to get momentum to keep this rolling,” he said. “We’ve seen pretty good demand from the domestic market and from Canada and Brazil. We’ve got a lot of promotions in place, and we’re just going to have to hit it hard early this season.”

Reisenhauer also reported good demand early in the season.

“The bartletts have been moving through with no problems,” he said.

On Sept. 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a price of $22 for 4/5 bushel cartons of bartletts 70-80s from Washington, down from $24 last year at the same time.

Moffitt also cited strong demand in Asia and India this year for star crimson pears grown in the Northwest.

The one negative, Moffitt said, is Mexico, where a 20% tariff — retaliation for U.S. rejection of Mexican trucks — is limiting exports there.