Asurvivor in the shifting pear-orchard business, Meyer Orchards of Talent celebrated its centennial on the Fourth of July with a big picnic of 170 guests — and the fourth (and maybe fifth) generation of the Meyer clan on hand to run things.
Ron Meyer and his son, Kirt, are the scions of two German and Austrian families who, with no farming experience, started pear orchards on South Stage Road and Orchard Home Drive 100 years ago. The son of one family, Joe Meyer, married the daughter of the other family, Lorraine, and in 1954 the couple bought the Talent property.
Ron was born in 1938 and, with his wife, Lana, became the third generation to run the orchard and packing house, eventually becoming big enough to do their own marketing, selling pears across the U.S. from the 140-acre orchard.
It's par for the course for farmers to joke about the perils of agriculture, which is always at the mercy of weather, and Ron Meyer is no exception.
Firing up the family's 63-year-old Case tractor (which each new Meyer generation starts driving at a single-digit age), he says, "Some days it's wonderful and some days you don't understand why you're doing this. The frost, the wind, the hail — Mother Nature is your biggest factor. She can make or break you."
The second-biggest factor, Ron notes, is the uncertainty of the labor force. Before the Great Depression, loggers used to fill in their off-season by working in the orchards. When the economy collapsed in the 1930s, "fruit tramps" from the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and Kansas could be counted on, but with World War II, they disappeared to jobs in ship yards — and braceros, legal migrant farm workers from Mexico, did the work, he says.
After the war, unions stopped the bracero program, he says, but Mexican farm workers kept coming. That led to the present controversy involving immigration and undocumented farm workers.
Recent decades have been hard for the Rogue Valley's once iconic pear industry, and Ron ticks off many of the orchards and packing houses — Del Rio, Newbry, Rogue River, Barnes Brothers — that have gone under. Many of them disappeared, he says, because of market-driven demands for pears of perfect color, size and sheen (bruise-free), which requires expensive sorting and weighing machines that also tag fruit with stickers and bar codes.
Showing the family album of photos in the Rogue Valley dating back to 1912, with horses pulling the spray wagons (common through World War II), Ron Meyer recounts that his paternal grandfather, Wendolin (note: this name has been corrected) Meyer, was a coal miner in Illinois. It was a dangerous occupation — on one shift he had to wait for a second elevator after the first one filled, only to see everyone on the first elevator killed when a cable broke. His wife made him quit and he responded to a newspaper ad about cheap land for orchards in Oregon.
Ron's maternal grandfather was a tool-and-die maker from Austria, living in New York. They answered the call of cheap land in Oklahoma, but when that didn't pan out they headed by ship from San Francisco to Southern Oregon with a vision of pear growing.
Ron Meyer, 72, recently called his four children together and asked who would take over the family business. He says the answer was a resounding "not me."
But soon, son Kirt, 42, stepped forward and said, with 30 years' experience, he could walk away from his dormant career as a building contractor and take on the orchards.
"Needless to say," says Kirt, "that career ended and I have this that I know and enjoy. I ran the packing shed when I was 12 and could operate a fork lift so well that, when I left, they had to replace me with two people. I drove the tractor when I was 3. I have sons 5 and 6."
Someday, he suggests, maybe one of them could become the fifth generation of the Meyer family to run this business.
Ron injects another agriculture joke: "Kirt's building work almost stopped. He feels more stable here. Building is cyclical, but this is stable. It's bad all the time."
So, why do it?
"We just don't know any better," says Ron with a laugh.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.