Blight becomes latest blow for orchard

A fire blight outbreak on pear trees in Talent sent workers scurrying Thursday to stop its spread by cutting diseased branches and burning them, sending up a plume of smoke that could be seen from Ashland to Central Point.

"It's a terrible infection," said Federico De La Garza, an orchard foreman for Naumes.

He said a bad economy, late frost, cool temperatures in the spring and now the blight are wreaking havoc on orchards.

Some blight is normal, but this year, De La Garza has seen it spread through about 35 acres of a 600-acre Naumes orchard off Suncrest Road.

The blight has plagued other nearby orchards, including those owned by Harry & David, he said.

A special permit from Jackson County allows the orchard to burn the infected branches, even though temperatures soared into the 90s by late morning.

De La Garza said workers take extra precautions, notifying local fire officials and making sure the fire is out before noon. Even with the permit, De La Garza received calls from as far away as Central Point as residents worried about the column of smoke.

The blight problem came at the wrong time for orchardists.

"This is a bad economy," De La Garza said. "We've had bad pollination. And now, the blight."

David Sugar, professor of horticulture and plant pathology for the Oregon State University Extension Service in Central Point, said Harry & David, Associated Fruit, Naumes and Meyer Orchards have all complained about blight.

He said he doesn't know how extensive the damage is yet, but there have been severe outbreaks in some pockets of orchards throughout the valley. "It is the most serious disease of pears worldwide," Sugar said.

While any pear tree can succumb to fire blight, Packham's triumph pear, which started in Australia, is particularly susceptible, Sugar said.

De La Garza also reported that he was having the blight problems mostly on trees grafted with the Packham variety.

The hardest hit area appears to be the south end of the valley, on the east side.

Sugar said De La Garza's team is doing the right thing by severely cutting back on limbs, then burning the infected branches as soon as possible to eradicate the bacteria that causes the fire blight.

If radical measures aren't taken, Sugar said the risk is that the whole tree could be killed. The kind of vigilance that De La Garza's team is undertaking is important in controlling the outbreak, Sugar said.

The infection probably started around April 15 when the pear trees began blooming. After a wet spring, a spike in temperatures created ideal conditions for fire blight, which spreads through the blossoms.

Sugar thinks the temperatures in the southern end of the valley were particularly ideal for blight.

Despite the outbreak, Sugar didn't think it would have a significant impact on the crop.

"We've been through this many times historically," he said. "It's not enough to make a big dent in the overall tonnage produced."

Damian Mann is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4476, or e-mail

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