(July 25) New varieties representing a wide range of commodities play key roles in California’s multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. A glaring exception, however, is the pear crop.

“The pear deal is very much in need of diversification,” said Rachel Elkins, University of California Cooperative Extension pomology farm advisor for Lake and Mendocino Counties. “It doesn’t really have a lot of new varieties.”

Among the tasks Elkins shoulders is evaluating new varieties for possible use in California. She does so in a cooperative effort with Corvallis-based Oregon State University and the Oregon State University Food and Innovation Center, Portland.

“I’m focusing on varieties that might be niche market items, that might interest different consumer sectors,” Elkins said.

There have been some positive results. Elkins said she and her Oregon colleagues have conducted sensory perception surveys at festivals and farmers’ markets. Several varieties have stood out over time among survey participants.

“They put some of the varieties right up there with bartletts in terms of taste,” Elkins said.

Taste is not the only measure stick, however. Elkins said some varieties that received good marks for taste were rejected because they required longer storage to ripen fully. Others were unable to endure long-term anti-scab treatments.

The only active domestic pear breeding program is under the direction of Dr. Richard Bell, research horticulturist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station, Kearneysville, W.V.

Among the varieties he’s developed in recent years are blake’s pride, sunrise and shenandoah. Bell said blake’s pride and sunrise have done best in trials in California and Oregon. He said another variety may be released soon if it passes virus testing currently underway near Prosser, Wash.

“There’s a new red variety, Haley’s red, that matures earlier and has thinner skin than current reds,” said Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Pear Advisory Board, Sacramento.

The new variety was planted just a few years ago, so Zanobini said it has not yet reached commercial production.

Zanobini said another variety, taylor’s gold, was developed in New Zealand and is being grown in some areas.

“There are lots of varieties on the horizon,” said Chuck Morse, deputy agriculture commissioner for Lake County. “They’re just trying to figure out which ones will go through a packinghouse.”

“The USDA traditionally has not patented fruit varieties,” Bell said. “It does it now on a case-by-case basis.”

Royalties for those new varieties, however, do not go back to his breeding program. Bell said the money goes into the general treasury.

The long wait for a new orchard to produce a commercial crop is another stumbling block. That wait can be up to ten years.

“That’s really been the big problem with pears, at least in adopting new varieties and getting a return on investment,” Bell said.

Bell said a challenger to domestic pears may be on the horizon.

“The New Zealand breeding program has jumped on interspecific hybrids in a big way, “Bell said.

The most promising, he said, is a cross between European and Asian pears. He said the hybrid is a finely textured crisp-flesh pear but with more of a European bartlett flavor.