Califonia Bountiful

Pears stand the test of time

July/August 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Lake County Bartletts hold a sweet spot in history

Fourth-generation Bartlett pear grower Diane Henderson, in her Kelseyville orchard, says she is proud of her family's longtime contribution to California agriculture and Lake County's heritage. Photo: © 2018 Paige Green

When you think of a pear, chances are you picture a Bartlett, the yellow-green variety that's the most widely grown in California. This iconic fruit is still farmed by descendants of California pear-growing pioneers. Among them are Diane Henderson, who farms in Lake County, the largest production area in what is known as the Mountain District.

"The Lake County Bartlett is a premium pear because of our microclimate and altitude," said Henderson, a fourth-generation pear grower who recalls picking pears from her family's trees as a child and eating them in the orchard. "The warm summer days with cool nights help create the characteristic kissed-by-the-sun, rosy glow that Lake County Bartletts are known for. It is also a beautiful pear with its long-necked, classic pear shape."

This time of year, the trees in the family's orchards are heavy with the sweet fruit. Lake County Bartletts are harvested in July and August, so the farm's busiest period is getting underway. This season's harvest builds on more than 125 years of family experience in growing the fruit.

Developed in 17th-century England, the Bartlett was brought to California by the 49ers who came in search of gold. Henderson's earliest ancestor in Lake County was among those prospectors seeking their fortune in the Gold Rush. However, it was Henderson's great-grandfather who instead earned a place in history by planting the county's first large-scale commercial Bartlett pear orchard in 1891. Her family still farms many of the same trees today.

Bartlett pears have been grown commercially in Lake County since 1885, shortly after being proclaimed "the finest in the world" at the World's Fair in New Orleans. The fruit was mainly available to customers as a dried product until 1923. Through the years, as packers moved to the area and with the introduction of the iced rail car, more fresh pears were packed, sold and shipped to customers across the country.

After retiring last fall, Diane Henderson and husband Syd Stokes, right in photo on bottom, mentored nephew Greg Panella, center with wife Allison and children Daniel and Audrey, to manage Henderson Orchards. Top right, Henderson's great-grandfather Lewis Henderson, center, stands among employees at his pear drying facility in the early 1900s. Artwork for the Blazing Star label, top left, was painted by late family member Jean Holdenried. Family photo: © 2018 Paige Green. Label photo: Courtesy of Scully Packing Co. Historic photo: Courtesy of Henderson family

All in the family

Growing up in Kelseyville around her family's pear orchards, Henderson developed a love for animals and the outdoors. She originally aspired to be a veterinarian, but ended up teaching writing and English literature at Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo. She was in her 30s when she returned to the family farm, which by then had grown to 160 acres from the original 20.

"I was hired on with the farm crew, and it was perfect and the best way in the world to learn everything. I learned to mow, irrigate, rake brush, prune and all jobs," Henderson said. "The highlights of farming are the wonderful people. They know how to make a good time out of hard work, playing music and teasing each other. The atmosphere is great out there and is what I like best about farming."

Before long, Henderson took over management of Henderson Orchards and bought her own adjoining orchard—and married Syd Stokes, also from a pear-growing family.

"We loved farming and we could help each other in that we were both strong in different areas, but we didn't get in each other's way," she said. "He's always been a very supportive, very helpful partner."

The couple operated their businesses separately to avoid confusion, but purchased one orchard together.

After farming for 35 years, Henderson joined her husband in retirement after the 2017 pear harvest. Nephew Greg Panella, whom the couple had mentored, then began leasing the 63 acres that today is Henderson Orchards.

Farm manager Greg Panella's daughter, Audrey, samples the crop. Photo: © 2018 Paige Green

Handing down the farm

Panella is a fifth-generation farmer who grew up on his family's walnut farm in Kelseyville and later served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Everything he knows about pears, he said, he learned from his aunt and uncle.

"It's good to learn from Syd and Diane, who have been doing it so successfully as long as they have," Panella said. "I've always been drawn to agriculture. I like being able to see the fruits of your labor—putting hard work into something and you see the results."

He and his wife, Allison, have two young children, Audrey, 5, and Daniel, 3, plus a baby on the way. The pear orchard, Panella noted, is a great place to spend time with family.

"The kids love being out in the orchard," he said. "When we are driving through the orchard, they tell me they are going to eat every pear."

Panella usually eats four or five pears right off the tree every day during harvest season: "You can tell how harvest is going because at first they are real crunchy and green,"he explained. "Later, as they ripen, they get a little bit sweeter and sweeter as the harvest goes on."

Javier Moran harvests Bartlett pears at Henderson Orchards. Photo: © 2018 Paige Green

Summertime treat

Pear harvest in California typically starts July 10 or 12 in the Sacramento River Delta District—centered around the communities of Courtland and Clarksburg—then moves to the Mountain District of Lake and Mendocino counties. California growers produce about 150,000 tons of pears annually. Pears from Lake County represent one-quarter of all pears grown in the state: Bartletts, plus Bosc, Comice and Forelle varieties. Most of the state's pears are sold domestically to supermarkets and retail chains, with the remainder exported to countries such as Canada and Mexico. Pears not destined for the fresh market are sold to processors for canning, baby food or juice.

Unlike most fruit, pears are best picked unripe. Bartletts take a week or more to ripen on the kitchen counter.

"They are ready to eat when they are turning yellow and give to pressure around the neck of the pear," Henderson said.

Pears are a healthy snack, Henderson added, and also a popular ingredient for dishes from appetizers to desserts. Pear cake and pear honey are two of her family's favorite recipes.

"The cake involves putting chunks of raw pears into cake batter with a little cinnamon. You bake it for a long time at a low temperature," she said. "It's always really moist, super-yummy and easy to make."

Henderson's recipe for pear honey—in which fresh pears are simmered into a sauce—was passed down from her maternal great-grandmother.

"We use it like jam," she said. "You can put it on top of ice cream and use it as a topping for all kinds of things, even meats."

Still, Henderson said there's nothing quite like eating a Bartlett pear right from the tree, especially one from her great-grandfather's 127-year-old orchard.

"The home orchard is very special to me," she said. "As I walk through it, it is very quiet and peaceful and beautiful with those old, shady trees. I feel my ancestors' presence every time I walk in it."

Christine Souza


Raw pear cake

Pear honey

Photo: © 2018 Paige Green

Celebrating Lake County's pear heritage

After pears have been picked from local orchards, thousands of visitors are invited to downtown Kelseyville to celebrate the community's agricultural heritage at the annual Kelseyville Pear Festival, which marks 26 years on Sept. 29.

"The event is very popular. You can barely walk down the street," said pear farmer Diane Henderson. "There are a zillion pear items to drink or eat—fresh whole pears, pear margaritas, pear ice cream, and pear pies and turnovers."

The event begins with a parade and continues with pear tasting, cooking demonstrations and food vendors specializing in everything pears. Other activities include dessert- and pie-eating contests, arts and crafts, live music and wagon rides.

Henderson's nephew, Greg Panella, takes his family to the festival every year. The farmer, whose ancestors were among the earliest pear growers, said he especially appreciates the opportunity to see the historical photos, fruit crate labels and antique farm equipment on display at the Pear Pavilion. "

They have all of the historical photos of my aunt's great-grandfather," he said. "You get to see history that you don't normally see."

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