Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Typically, I'm not surprised when produce prices climb in the winter. Basic economics tells us that when supply dwindles and demand increases, prices go up. I had a case of sticker shock recently though when I noticed Asian pears being sold by the case for over $20 per relatively small case.
Why the high price? What makes Asian pears so special? Their price stays relatively the same, while other produce prices rise and fall with the seasons.
Asian pears are a relatively new addition to U.S. produce departments, but they are in reality an ancient crop. Historically Asian pears have been grown in Japan and China for at least 3,000 years. Chinese immigrants brought Asian pears to the West coast of the U.S. in the 1800s. Most U.S. commercial production of Asian pears remains on the West coast to this day. Asia grows upwards of 500,000 tons of Asian pears, some of which are exported to the U.S.
Asian pears have a different shape, taste and texture than European pears more commonly available, such as Bartlett and D'anjou. They are also harvested completely differently.
European pears are typically harvested unripe, and allowed to ripen at room temperature to a mellow sweet flavor with soft texture. Their shape is what we call "pear-shaped" (how creative!)-- thin on top, thicker on the bottom. If you want to impress your friends and family, the botanical term is pyriform, derived from the genus name for pear, Pyrus. On the other hand, Asian pears are allowed to ripen fully on the tree, and have a sweet and tart flavor. while retaining a crisp texture, much like an apple.
The similarity to apple's texture has led some to nickname the fruit the "apple pear", which creates confusion. It is tempting to assume, judging by the fruit's shape and texture that there must have been some cross-breeding with an apple tree somewhere in its pedigree. But there is no apple ancestry in the Asian pear.
On the contrary, the Asian pear is all pear. They have been selected from the Ussuri Pear (Pyrus ussuriensis) and the Japanese sand pear (Pyrus pyrifolia or serotina). Some Asian pear cultivars are selected from hybrids created from the Ussuri and Japanese sand pears.
Asian pears can also be divided into Chinese and Japanese groups based on shape. Those in the Chinese group have a more pyriform shape, while those in the Japanese group are more round and resemble an apple in size and shape. These Japanese types are the ones most likely to be found in your local grocery store.
Asian pears in the Japanese group can be further subdivided according to their skin's color and texture. Some are smooth, and green-yellow in color, while others are "russeted" (think potato) and are rough in texture with a brownish copper color.
There are some special considerations in commercial production of Asian pears that translates to a significantly higher price in the local grocery store. Practically speaking, wherever a grower has to provide more inputs, whether that is labor, land, plants, fertilizer, or pest and disease control, that cost is ultimately passed onto the consumer. As consumers we decide whether it's worth the price.
Asian pear trees put on a lot of fruit. Left untouched, they would be crowded during development, limiting their size. There is also a risk that too many fruits will weigh down a branch enough to break it. In order to grow a fruit to a size large enough to market, the grower must thin the fruit on the tree.
When growing other tree fruits, growers can sometimes spray a chemical on young fruits that causes a percentage of them to drop from the plant, leaving adequate space between those that remain, promoting larger fruits. Unfortunately, this type of spray is not very effective for Asian pears, and thinning is done by hand.
Typically thinning is done twice, once to remove a percentage of flowers, and a second time to remove some of the very young fruits. Having to thin by hand increases the cost of production significantly.
Another factor contributing to cost is that compared to European pear varieties like Bartlett, Asian pears yield less fruits per tree. You might conclude that the solution is to thin less fruits from the Asian pear. Unfortunately, if they are not thinned enough, Asian pears will not grow to an acceptable size for sale. In order to increase Asian pear yield, the grower must have more trees–driving the cost up.
When harvest time comes, Asian pears also need special treatment. Their skins are very prone to bruising and puncturing. No one wants to buy bruised fruit at a premium price. In order to keep the fruits pristine and perfect, they are hand-picked into padded containers. From there, they are handled with special care and transported to a packinghouse where sorters wrap each fruit in bubble wrap or other protective layer and directly place them in shipping boxes. Once again, this process adds to the bottom line.
One way around the high price of Asian pears is to grow them yourself at home. There are numerous cultivars recommended for home gardeners, including dwarf cultivars. Whatever you choose, consider growing more than one cultivar, since Asian pears have limited ability to self pollinate.
Complicating choosing cultivars is that they will not all cross-pollinate with each other. Most companies that sell Asian pear trees for homeowners can offer guidance on which trees work best together. Taking time to research before you plant Asian pears can mean larger yields in the long run.
Although now I now why the Asian pears were priced at over $20 a case, I'm not sure I want to spend the money on just the fruit. I would however like to put that money towards buying a couple of trees for my yard. Now if I could just convince my husband that we really need two more trees...