The Story of the Super-Fantastical Pear Puff Machine

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An Unlikely Farmer and a Passionate Inventor Create Oregon’s Next Great Snack

By Margarett Waterbury
Illustration by Elise Furlan

pear puffJacqueline Alexander is not your typical orchardist. A trained attorney and mother of nine-year-old twins, she bought her 40-acre Asian pear orchard in Hood River while she was still a law student at Lewis and Clark in 2007. Originally intended as a project for her father-in-law, Alexander found herself becoming more and more engaged with the orchard. After graduation and months of commuting back and forth from Hood River to Portland (a commute she bravely describes as “not that bad”), Alexander decided that she preferred farming to law and dedicated herself full time to the operations of Morale Orchards (named after her children, daughter Morgan and son Alexander).

The first few years brought a steep learning curve, but Alexander didn’t go it completely alone. “I had some support from family members in the area who had moved to the Hood River Valley from the Southwest to work as farm laborers. They had never farmed on a commercial scale, but they had a small orchard and were able to guide me.”

She also retained the previous owner as a sales manager, helping maintain long-term buyer relationships. Little by little, she learned the ropes and began growing the business.

In 2010, she turned her attention to a nagging problem. Each year, about 15 percent of her pears were culls due to cosmetic imperfections—usually caused by falls, hail, insects, or wind causing branches to hit against fruit. At the time, Alexander did the same as many other orchardists: She sold her pears to juicers at pennies on the pound. It was better than letting the fruit—which still had great flavor—go to waste. But Alexander felt like there had to be another way—a better way—to sell these imperfect pears and actually make money for the orchard. She considered producing Asian pear schnapps after an inspiring visit to Europe, but it was her children who eventually nudged her in a different direction.

“After talking to my kids, who said ‘you should make some kind of pear candy,’ I started looking for snacks made with pears and found freeze-dried fruits. Preserving the product, extending the shelf life, and retaining 98 percent of the nutritional value at the same time? Perfect.” She began investigating the market on her own.

Freeze-dried fruits are beginning to pop up in the grocery aisle as consumers shift away from deep-fried salty snacks toward healthier whole foods. She found that most of those products are imported from Asia, and many contain added sugar and sweeteners. Alexander knew that she had discovered her niche: the first American-made, farm-to-snack, single-origin and single-ingredient freeze-dried product—grown, processed, and packaged all in the same place. But coming up with the idea was the easy part. Where would she get the equipment? How would she manufacture her freeze-dried product? Who would buy it? The questions started to pile up. So she called the Food Innovation Center.

The Food Innovation Center (FIC) is located on the fringe of Portland’s Pearl District, right between the train tracks and the police horse stables in a shiny, glass-fronted building. Once you’re past the lobby, the inside looks just like a college chemistry lab, except you’re allowed to eat in it. When I visited, we walked through one room where a group of four was tasting what looked like berry smoothies in various states of pinkness and seediness out of identical clear plastic tubs with masking tape labels. “This one doesn’t have a lot of eye appeal,” one taster said, gesturing with her spoon at a slightly muddy-looking batch.

Oregon State University co-founded the FIC with the Oregon Department of Agriculture as an urban agricultural extension center in 1999. One part laboratory, one part economic development center, and one part enviously equipped kitchen, the FIC was built as a kind of specialized consulting center for all kinds of food businesses. There’s no place quite like it in the United States.

Though the center serves clients from all over the world (in fact, the odds are good that the FIC worked on a handful of products sitting in your pantry right now), its core mission is advancing Northwest foods. By helping local producers add value to their products, the FIC helps individual food businesses succeed while simultaneously keeping dollars in our local economy. If you need to know how to package your meringue cookies for maximum shelf stability, what shoppers really think of your salad dressing recipe, or if now is a good time to launch that cricket-flour Paleo energy bar, the FIC is there for you.

Assistant Professor and Senior Resident Dr. Quingyue Ling is a big thinker. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Dr. Ling now manages the packaging design program at the FIC and has a particular interest in using technology to make food better, healthier, and safer. When he talks about his work, he practically trembles with genuine excitement. He holds patents on several in-development technologies that truly drive home the sensation that the future is now, like a device that heats food using radio waves instead of microwaves (“You can cook a Thanksgiving turkey in 30 minutes!”) or carbonated fruit (“Kids love it, it’s so fun to eat!”).

In 2007, another retiring food scientist named Dr. Paul Chen, who had worked at an agricultural research center in Hood River (also operated by Oregon State University), bequeathed Dr. Ling a patented technology for freeze-drying pears that preserved their sweet and delicate flavor better than ever before. In partnership with the Columbia River Grower’s Association and the Hood River Pear Association, Dr. Ling began developing a new potential product: the Pear Puff, a small cube of freeze-dried pear about the size of a hazelnut that could be used in snacks, mixed as an ingredient into processed foods, or even eaten out of hand.

After extensive consumer testing, more development, and a feature showcase, everyone was excited about the project. But then, says Dr. Ling, they hit a wall. “Who is going to lead this? Who is our champion?” Building a freeze-drying facility from scratch is a demanding task, both expensive and technologically intensive. Somebody needed to take charge, but in 2008, nobody was able to step up.

When Alexander contacted Dr. Ling in 2010, it was kismet. “On the day I visited her farm, I saw these wonderful premium-quality pears that, just because they fall to the ground, they have to be downgraded. What if we can use those? If we can turn the fresh pear into a high-quality product, we gain a lot of value.” Dr. Ling immediately picked up the project.

Freeze-drying isn’t a new technology, but until recently it was mostly used by higher-margin businesses like pharmaceutical firms because of its expense. A full freeze- drying plant can cost millions to build and equip, and most food companies don’t generate that kind of profit. Today, the cost of freeze-drying is starting to go down, but it’s still out of reach for many food businesses.

Though the equipment is expensive, the technique is relatively simple. The Puff Factory has a prototype machine installed at the FIC that was custom made by a Chinese manufacturer to Dr. Ling and Alexander’s exact specifications. It’s is a big, gleaming, stainless-steel box with two chambers: a freezing chamber and a drying chamber. Each chamber holds six trays of pears, or, as Dr. Ling tells me, anything from produce to pet food.

In the freezing chamber, the trays are rapidly cooled to -35 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. The food emerges frozen in just three hours. In the drying chamber, fluid-filled plates heat the air around the trays so that the ice in the frozen pears is transformed from a solid to
a vapor without ever becoming water, leaving the cell structure of the product intact and making it possible for freeze- dried foods to uncannily resemble the real thing.

Remember astronaut ice cream? A Pear Puff is like that in texture…but much more delicious.

Freeze-drying as a technique has a lot of benefits. Because the food isn’t heated, virtually all the nutrition and color is retained. Foods also become entirely shelf stable, reducing the energy demands of storing or packaging the product by eliminating the need for refrigeration or canning. Dr. Ling reports that, in the right container, a freeze-dried pear could have a shelf life of up to 20 years. Freeze-dried foods are also extremely lightweight, which makes them inexpensive to ship, and they work particularly well in baked goods like muffins and cakes. Finally, they are oddly fun to eat. Remember astronaut ice cream? A Pear Puff is a little like that in texture—simultaneously crunchy and melting—but much more delicious.

These days, food technology gets a bad rap. In some ways, the movement toward healthier, less processed, whole foods has been a great thing, but eschewing the use of technology altogether in our food system leaves producers like Alexander without a lot of options for growing their businesses. In Oregon, we’re fortunate to have resources like the FIC that can help food companies use technology in ways that make sense for their businesses, consumers, and industries as a whole. Plus, imagine how fantastic a sweet Oregon pear might taste on the last day of a backpacking trip in the Cascades or an afternoon kayaking trip on the Willamette.

In 2011, Dr. Ling and Alexander received a USDA Rural Development grant for $80,000 to do a technology and economic feasibility study, a project that took three years to complete. As part of the feasibility study, they conducted a full sensory evaluation of the Pear Puffs (made on the FIC’s prototype machinery), recruiting consumers to complete a blind taste test comparing them to other commercially available freeze-dried fruits. They found that consumers preferred a crisp and crunchy freeze-dried pear; children especially liked a bit more “puff.”
The square shape of Pear Puffs was an important innovation because it’s better able to enhance the sensation of crispness than the prevailing chip shape and doesn’t go chewy over time.

Last year, they were awarded a $400,000 grant to finance the scale-up and market development of the Pear Puff product, which Alexander plans to market under the brand Know Your Fruit. A key component of the project is the development of a full-scale freeze-drying processing facility in Cascade Locks. While construction of the factory is underway, Alexander plans to use the freeze-drying equipment installed at the FIC to begin manufacturing Know Your Fruit Pear Puffs for the local market, which means you’ll see them in stores as early as this summer. (Just in time to liven up that hiking mix!)

The projected economic impact of the Pear Puff is significant, extending well beyond the 20 to 40 staff Alexander plans to employ. Her orchard simply isn’t big enough to meet the demand they envision, so the plant will need to purchase fruit from dozens of other growers. In the first year of operations, they plan to use 2.5 million pounds of pears. As the business expands, they’ll need much more—a good thing, because the Hood River Valley produces 30 to 40 million pounds of culls annually. Farmers will be able to get two to three times the price they currently get from juicers for these cosmetically damaged pears.

Larry Lambert from Stadleman’s Fruit, a major packer and shipper in the Hood River Valley, echoes these sentiments. “Growers are always looking for additional alternatives for the fruit they grow that isn’t destined for the fresh market. The more markets that are available to us for seconds or culls, the better for the returns. It’s a positive thing that’s valuable for everybody.”

Over time, Alexander plans to grow beyond pears to make freeze-dried apples, apricots, cherries, blueberries, and other Oregon fruits. This project (and freeze-drying in general) not only has the potential to transform Northwest fruit growing by adding value to crops, but also creates benefits that extend along the supply chain like fuel savings, longer shelf life, and healthier choices at the supermarket. If the Pear Puff project succeeds, local fruit growers will have a new avenue for generating income from their undervalued and underutilized crops, and Oregon’s national reputation as a top-tier fruit producer will continue to blossom.

 

Margarett Waterbury is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon and is a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest. She is interested in all aspects of food, from cooking and eating to the systems and industries that produce it.

READ: More stories from the Winter 2015 issue

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