Prof. Stefano Musacchi has been working on pears for more than three decades. He started his career at the University of Bologna and currently holds the Endowed Chair in Tree-fruit Physiology and Management at Washington State University. He also chairs the ISHS — International Society for Horticultural Science — Workgroup on European and Asian Pears. Fresh Quarterly spoke to Musacchi about the factors impacting global European pear production. By Anna Mouton.
Q. What are some of the long-term challenges for pear production?
A. Pear is a unique crop in my opinion because there is a big component of the climate that can change fruit appearance and yields. I have pictures of Abate Fetel from different parts of the world, and you can barely recognise that it’s the same cultivar.
This raises the question of environmental sustainability. Some areas are probably no longer sustainable for some cultivars, for many reasons. It could be because there is no water, the weather is changing, or pest pressures are very high.
For example, in Italy, Abate Fetel is struggling because there are fewer active principles [products] that can be used for pest management. Only a few areas around the world have really good conditions for pears.
I saw an orchard of Abate Fetel in Argentina where they thin the fruit because the crop load was too high — I’ve heard that it’s the same in South Africa.
Q. You are actively involved in pear rootstock development and also chair the ISHS Workgroup on Rootstock Breeding and Evaluation. How are new rootstocks changing the pear industry?
A. Europe uses mainly quince rootstocks which are normally dwarfing and allow you to plant at high densities that are easy to manage because the trees are so narrow. But it requires a completely different management strategy to a pear rootstock where you plant the tree and almost forget about it until it starts to crop.
The difference is that nobody nowadays can wait six or seven years before entering into production. But super high-density plantings with 12 000 trees per hectare are also not recommended considering the current prices of pears. In Italy, they were spending USD 60 000–70 000 per hectare to establish these kinds of orchards, which is not economically sustainable with low returns.
Another problem is that, in many cases, the pears from high-density plantings, like on the Quince MC, are very small. So even if you can double the production, the price for the small fruit is probably 20% of the price for the best class of the larger fruit.
This has changed the dynamic of rootstocks in Italy, for example. They now use more vigorous rootstocks like Quince BA29, or they are back to pear rootstocks or self-rooted trees.
Q. What are the trends in orchard densities and training systems?
A. The tendency now in Italy is medium-low density — 3.5–4.0 x 1.5–3.0 metres. This is because there are so many pests and diseases putting pressure on Abate Fetel that the young trees on quince struggle.
I remember when we did some work in an orchard that had 12 000 trees per hectare. We probably replaced 2 000 trees in the first six years. And then you have to keep replanting because the trees are dying and you end up with different ages inside the orchard, which is difficult to manage. This is why those kinds of orchards have almost disappeared.
Here in the United States, labour costs are going up very quickly, and the price of pears is not going up. So you have to push up the yields. This brings a new orchard layout —2D rather than 3D canopies. That way you can use platforms and you can mechanise.
We are testing, for example, the bi-axis and the multi-axis, where everything can be done with a platform. Their narrow canopies also improve spray efficiency a lot, and you reduce the environmental impact because you reduce the volume you need to cover the orchard.
People are also starting to use V-systems with multiple leaders. In pears, the angle plays a big role because they are acrotonic — they like to grow in the top — so they sucker too much if the inside is too open. A 15-degree angle works quite well here. I visited an orchard on OHxF 97 which started to produce in the third leaf.
Q. What are the global trends in pear production and consumption?
A. Pear consumption is normally high in the countries that produce pears, like Italy and Argentina. But if you come to the United States, for example, the average annual pear consumption is only 1.3 kilograms per capita, which is really low. If you think that the average pear mass is 180–250 grams, you count five or six pears per capita per year.
The big deal is understanding why the pear market is not expanding, because apples are expanding quite a lot, and in the end, fruit compete against one another.
About six pear cultivars probably account for 80% of pear production. And this is quite a unique thing especially when you compare it with the apple industry. When I came to work in Washington State [in 2013] there were about 38 apple cultivars — now we have 64. But we are still growing mostly Bartlett and Anjou.
When you only have six pear cultivars, there is not enough variability to make people that don’t normally eat pears, start to eat pears. We need to understand what consumers like, and what we can do inside existing breeding programmes to increase consumption.
Q. Do you think new pear cultivars have the potential to attract new consumers?
A. Yes — I am quite optimistic about that. New pears are being tested in Washington State. One is HW624 from the Harrow breeding programme in Canada, which is traded as Happi Pear. It is a green pear that can develop a blush.
More colourful pears are also being pursued by New Zealand breeding programmes with hybrids like Piqa Boo and others that are very interesting because they taste differently.
I think that if you are already a pear buyer, you like traditional pears because those are what you normally eat. But if you have a new kind of fruit, you can also attract people that are not currently pear consumers.
I know that South Africa is number one for blushed pears, and I think this is a big advantage for you.
Image: A pear orchard in Italy.