(Sept. 27) When it comes to longevity, it’s hard to beat the Milwaukie, Ore.-based Pear Bureau Northwest. The organization of nearly 1,700 growers, packers and shippers is marking its 75th anniversary this year, making it one of the oldest commodity groups in the U.S.

But the Pear Bureau deserves recognition for more than just surviving three quarters of a century. Growers will tell you that the staff has done an exemplary job over the years of increasing consumer awareness and consumption of pears, coordinating farming and nutrition research, commissioning consumer analyses and developing export programs to keep Northwest pears moving and providing decent returns to grower-shippers.

But there were times — as recent as the 2000-01 season — when providing growers with a fair return seemed next to impossible.

The U.S. was in a recession at the turn of the millennium, retail chains were undergoing major consolidation and volume of imported pears was on the rise while domestic supplies were exceeding demand and returns to growers were less than the cost of production.

It wasn’t an ideal time for Kevin Moffitt to take over as president and chief executive officer. He had joined the bureau in 1989 as director of international marketing, worked his way up to the bureau’s executive vice president and had been in training to take over the top spot when Herb Diede retired after nearly 30 years with the bureau.

Moffitt interpreted the industry shakeup as a mandate to do things differently. With the support of the board of directors and his staff, he set out to do just that.

Since research indicated that pear consumers craved flavor and convenience, he hired ripening adviser and technical consultant Dennis Kihlstadius to step up the industry’s conditioning program designed to provide good-tasting pears that are ready to eat within a day or two after purchase.

Moffitt beefed up a dormant public relations position that expanded the industry’s reach through third parties, like magazines, Web sites and TV cooking shows.

He increased promotions at schools, recognizing that youngsters have an important influence over what their parents buy.

The management team developed more creative and flexible promotions for the bureau’s regional managers with programs geared toward individual markets and specific retailers. And with the help of Dennis James, director of marketing, the regional managers became disseminators of information who could inform chains about their stores’ performances in relation to competitors, and suggest ways to increase consumer satisfaction.

Producers were pleased with the results.

Last year, in a grower referendum, 96% of those voting — representing nearly 80% of the Northwest industry’s tonnage — showed their support for the bureau by voting to continue the Fresh Pear Committee marketing order, which provides promotional funds for the Pear Bureau.

Mike Naumes, a former chairman and whose company, Naumes Inc., Medford, Ore., has been involved with the bureau since the company was formed in 1946, credited the bureau’s strong leadership and field staff, “who knocked on a lot of doors,” with playing major roles in the bureau’s success.

Naumes’ father, Joe, and several other family members have served as chairmen or in committee positions with the bureau.

The organization has come a long way since Dec. 4, 1931, when articles of incorporation for the Oregon-Washington Pear Bureau were filed in Washington, D.C. Its first marketing budget, approved the previous August, was for $15,000 to market 2.1 million cartons of pears. In 2006, the bureau’s total budget is about $10 million with about $7.4 million earmarked to promote Northwest pears worldwide. This year’s crop is estimated at 16.5 million boxes.

Pear Bureau Northwest represents all the fresh pears grown in Oregon and Washington, which accounts for 84% of the fresh pears produced in the U.S., Moffitt said. Varieties, in descending order of production, include green anjou, bartlett, bosc, red anjou, comice and star crimson. Growers divided into four districts pay a 44-cents-per-box assessment to support the bureau.

LOOKING AHEAD

The Pear Bureau shows no signs of slowing.

The organization spends about $700,000 annually on research into areas like pest management, generating better root stock and analyzing storage and packaging techniques. And $50,000 is spent on nutrition and consumer research.

Thanks in part to the bureau’s working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA recently reclassified pears from a “good” to an “excellent” source of fiber.

The bureau will continue its relationship with the Walt Disney Co. through the company’s radio network or theme parks and is looking into a promotion wherein consumers may win a hybrid car.

The bureau will be involved with a wine and pear promotion at Epcot Center at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in November, and is working toward having December declared National Pear Month, Moffitt said.