When you consider pears, Lake County, and history you just naturally have to think of pioneer Benjamin Dewell of Upper Lake. In fact, when he planted the first pear tree in 1854, and his father-in-law planted the second tree, the Upper Lake area was still part of Napa County. The following information was gleaned from various historical sources and with the assistance of the great-great-grandson of William B. Elliott, Mr. Kimball Elliott Dodge of Upper Lake.
Mr. Dewell was more than the “father of pears” in this area. He came west in 1846 on a wagon train out of Independence, Missouri, heading for the Oregon Territory. He was hired on as a drover for a herd of Durham cattle owned by his future father-in-law, William B. Elliott who was heading west to Oregon with his family. While still on the vast plains of the Mid-West a group of the wagon train party decided to break off from the main train to Oregon and head for the fertile land they had heard about in then, Mexican Alta California. The settlers that split off included both Dewell and the Elliott family. By one report, they were the last party to make it through the Sierras before the ill-fated Donner party that followed them.
Dewell and Elliott settled in the Mark Springs West area, and while there a decision was reached to support the attempt to wrest the Alta California Territory from the Mexican government. Mostly, according to records available, this was because the Mexican authorities had given an eviction notice to the Americans in the Territory and a rumor was being circulated that a Mexican force was heading up from Monterey to expel the American pioneers. About this same time the settlers were given 40 days to exit Alta California by decree of General Vallejo, the Mexican Administrator in Sonoma. The Mexican officials were becoming concerned that the pioneers were too enterprising [Elliott by this time had built a mill in the Napa area] and were acquiring too much land in the territory.
So in June, of 1846, thirty-three future Californians formed a group they named the Bears and created the California Republic “Bear” flag, a design that heavily influenced the State flag that flies proudly over Sacramento today. Material for the flag was provided by the pioneer women who also sewed it together.
Having a name and a flag gave them identification and next, they joined a small group of similar minded pioneers and enacted a bloodless coup, appropriately enough, called the Bear Flag Revolt by historians, and captured General Vallejo. All of this without firing a shot. Records also wryly note that the coup was almost thwarted when Vallejo warmly invited the men into his house and plied them all with liquor as they celebrated their feat.
Nonetheless the Bears raised their new flag over the government building in the old plaza in Sonoma. Their efforts were obviously successful as California was the 31st state admitted to the United States on September 9, 1850.
About this time Benjamin Dewell married the daughter of Elliott, sixteen-year-old Celia Hall Elliott. Continuing to be a precedent-setting fellow, his was the first Presbyterian wedding performed in Santa Rosa.
Some time after these events the Dewells' and Elliots' gathered up their belongings and headed over Mt. St. Helena to Upper Lake to settle on land bought from General Vallejo, and Dewell and Elliott built their cabins on opposite sides of Clover Creek. The pair had discovered the beautiful Clear Lake valley while acting as members of a posse in 1849 in an attempt to rescue two other ill-fated pioneers in the Kelseyville area.
On May 2nd, 1861, Lake County was officially formed from part of Napa county and the county seat, Lakeport, was incorporated on May 20th that same year.
Now back to pears. The first commercial planting of pears was by Thomas Porteus in Big Valley, when he planted four acres of trees in 1885. Soon after, many other orchards were planted by such renown Lake County families as the Clendenins in Scotts Valley and the Laughlins, Akers and Youngs all of Kelseyville.
One of those serendipitous historical events occurred in 1885. State officials came to Lake County to seek some samples of the fruit to be show-cased in New Orleans at the World's Fair. Well, a two-pound apple and Bartlett pears of such surpassing beauty, some weighing as much as a pound, created quite a stir at the fair and the world learned about our tiny county and its agricultural wonders.
By now, so many pears and apples were being produced that the first fruit dryer was constructed by Clendenin and Laughlin in Kelseyville in 1887. The condition of the roads and the distance to rail and/or water transportation made it necessary to dry the fruit because wagon-shipping the pears was too hard on them and took too high a toll in damaged fruit.
During this same year, Young, from the Big Valley/Kelseyville area, became the first major shipper of fresh pears across the United States and abroad to England by ice refrigeration. This type of shipping eventually failed because of the difficulties involved.
The first packing shed was built by another commercial venturer in Finley, one of the Annette family. He had planted five acres of Bartletts in 1890. He also built packing sheds in Kelseyville and Upper Lake.
Europe, by this time, had became the major marketplace for our dried pears as most of the crop continued to be sent to drying sheds and then was shipped on to the European consumers.
According to 90-year young, Russ Benson, a long time pear grower, in fact, he has been labelled the “pear grower of pear growers,” said that the invention of pneumatic tires finally enabled our pears to be transported fresh in a somewhat cushioned manner over the Hopland Toll Road to eventually arrive at the railroad yards in Cloverdale, where they were transported to markets that had never been reached before with fresh fruit.
Soon, Lake County pears, in their very distinctive crates with their famous colorful copyrighted labels were being shipped all over the world.
So, you see, it was by no random finger of fate that pears are, according to Lake County Commissioner of Agriculture, Mark Lockhart, the number one crop in Lake County.
One interesting sidelight, though. According to Commissioner Lockhart this was not always true. By the time of prohibition in 1920 there were 7,000 acres of grapes in Lake County and pears were still just a minor crop, comprising less than a 1,000 acres. Even by 1997, there were only a little over 5,000 acres of pears in Lake County.
Another pivotal event, viewed rather calamitously at the time, was in 1923 when an embargo was placed on fruit exports to Europe. There was much scrambling and changing of marketing strategies, the result of which, was that a very robust domestic market was created.
Since that time, the number of trees planted and the annual yield has been increasing with fluctuations in profits based on demand. Shipping has been modernized and fresh pears leave Lake County in various means depending on where they are sold. Today, many of our pears are transported all over North America by refrigerated transport. Pete Dodson of Mt. Konocti Growers, a co-op of 35 growers, says they are shipping or have shipped fruit all over North America as well as to Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Russia.
One of the advantages that Lake County has over both Sacramento County, the largest producer of pears in California, and Mendocino County, is that we have, by far the largest number of modern packing houses. Most of the crops from both Mendocino and Sacramento counties are trucked into our county for packing and eventual shipment to the marketplace.
Events that have shaped the pear industry in the past include the use of irrigation by flooding; at the end of World War Two, application of commercial fertilizers; and the use of solid set sprinklers, which warm the orchard and have done away with the old “smudge pots” whose burning on frigid winter days created a massive dark cloud over the county that old-timers will remember and that could easily be seen from the Sacramento Valley.
Two banner years for pears were 1986 and 1996. During these two crop years, the amount of fruit, the price, and the demands of the consumer, resulted in excellent returns for the growers, and of course, the packers and shippers. According to a number of growers, 1996 was the best year ever. During that year crop yields in Oregon and Washington were down about 50 percent and prices for our pears were therefore comfortably higher.
Broc Zoller, “The Pear Doctor,” with Adobe Creek Packing, explained the packing process for me and how pears are handled at Adobe Creek. The pears are hand-picked and placed into canvas bags by the pickers and then transferred into large field bins and transported to the packing plant. At Adobe Creek Packers the containers are submerged into a pool of water and the fruit floats free, thereby reducing the tumbling and handling that can result in damage getting the fruit out of the containers.
The pears are taken out of the pool by moving them to belts where they are pre-sized, that is, the smallest pears are removed at this point. The pears continue on to sorting lines where damaged fruit is picked out by hand. The damaged fruit is sent either to a canner for the least damaged fruit or to a juicer for fruit with the most damage. There is an 80-90 percent revenue loss for these damaged pears.
The fruit on the belt continues and is then sized mechanically and is either handwrapped or mechanically fed into a “tight-fill” box and placed immediately into a “pre-cooler” to cool the fruit to 34 degrees to remove “field heat.” Broc stated that this has proven to extend the shelf life of the pears and must be done within 24 hours of their being picked.
After the fruit is pre-cooled it is put into cold storage facilities. In Lake County this enables us the unique opportunity of continuing to deliver fresh pears for almost two months after the harvest. Also, Broc, goes on, “Lake County is the main fresh market supplier for the U.S.”
Looking to the future of the pear industry, Agriculture Commissioner Mark Lockhart said, “Orchards are being reduced because of 'a constriction of the industry,' so that some older, marginal orchards are no longer economically viable.
“Mendocino County has 20 to 25 growers and one major packing shed while Lake County has approximately 45 to 50 growers [many of these are family orchards - some of them planted by pioneers] with seven packing sheds available to handle the pear harvest.”
Bill Oldham, Chairperson, Lake County Next Generation Pear Growers Association says that, “Production costs are rising and prices are not keeping up. Marginal orchards are being replaced by grapes. Overall production in California is falling and cannot keep up with demand so some higher pricing can be expected.”
One of the major factors looming on the horizon is the Food Quality Protection Act [FQPA] that was signed into law in 1996. It is feared by most growers that the act will remove most or all of the Organophosphate [OP] pesticides that are the most effective on pear parasites. These are broad spectrum pesticides that control not only the major pest, the codling moths, but also are effective on other parasites that attack the pear crop.
Even failing the removal of the OPs by the FQPA, codling moths are becoming more resistant to OPs and stronger mixtures and more frequent applications are becoming necessary to control them.
One alternative that is looking bright for the future is the use of Pheromone Confusion where a scent like a female moth, ready to breed, covers the entire orchard and causes males to be attracted from great distances. These males are attracted from as far away as seven miles. I suppose at this point they are confused by the dearth of females, hence the name. The moths do not have a chance to breed thus reducing the eggs and subsequent worms that would develop to infest the crop. Bill Oldham goes on to say that, “Pheromone confusion costs approximately $110 per acre to install the dispensers and an additional $25 per acre in labor/material to apply the scent repetitively during the mating period.”
Rachel Elkins, Farm Advisor for the University of California Davis Extension, added that one other major breakthrough is being researched for the future. The search for a good rootstock that will limit the height of the pear trees when they mature. This will reduce today’s labor costs due to the need for 16-20' aluminum ladders, and will keep the top of the tree down lower where applications of control pesticides can be effectively applied.
This has been a look at pears in Lake County, Past, Present and Future.
[This article, with editorial changes, appeared in the Lake County Record-Bee and the Clear Lake Observer, in an annual special agricultural insert on Saturday, May 9, 1998]
Written by Dale E. Malone, Is
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Last modified: April 26, 2009