Looking out for Number Ones 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.

October 22, 2005

Pear-sorting hands move just as nimbly in the final hour of the shift as in the first.

A cold-water flume runs through the warm environs of the Parkdale Diamond Fruit pre-size plant, where workers determine the quality of thousands of pieces of fruit an hour.

Pears enter in a bin and leave the plant sorted by quality and size, in another bin.

“Our main job is to make sure the bins are full of good-looking fruit,” said plant manager Doug Hedges.

Following hand sorting, the fruit moves under rollers and along chutes and onto a computerized scale for loading back into bins. From there, the bins are destined either for cold storage in Parkdale or shipment to Diamond central in Odell for packing, depending on the day’s market orders.

The pears come in cold, and when a bin full of them is submerged into the flume, it is the fruit that cools off the water.

A team of 26 people, including about 15 sorters wearing insulated gloves, processes 65 half-ton bins of fruit each hour. This week a green line of Anjous is washed and chlorinated in the serpentine flume before rollers carry the fruit up to a conveyor belt to where the well-trained sorters stand. En route, fans blow excess moisture off the pears and soft brushes sweep away leaves and other debris not removed in the wash. As pears glide by on more rollers, the sorters separate culls, unclassifieds, fancy, and U.S. Number One pears. Four sorters stand on each side of line, and they shift places periodically because the busiest sorting spot is the one closest to the wash where the pears first come up.

This is generally what they look for in pears: the culls are damaged and misshapen; the unclassifieds contain blemishes but are of better quality than culls; fancy pears bear a few small blemishes; Number One are the prime pears, well-shaped and free of all but minute markings other than a glowing green color.

The sorters are trained in judging each pear by sight and how to quickly place each one on the appropriate horizontal conveyor belt. Eye-level signs give visual aid to the size of some blemishes that distinguish a cull from an unclassified, but mostly the sorting is done by experience and concentration.

“You see the fruit. That’s it,” said Lupe Chavarria, a sorter for 10 years who now works on the “ground crew,” bringing the pears into the plant and keeping track of each grower’s batches.

The sorters must look for about 20 different factors, ranging from an off-center stem to degrees and types of russet, the brownish marking that occurs on pears.

For example, a Number One can have no punctures, scab, or scales, and “smooth, net-like russet” is permitted if less than 10 percent of the surface. Limb-rub can be no longer than a quarter-inch.

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