When Joseph Postman walks through the USDA pear orchard on a warm spring afternoon, he’ll spot a Petit Muscat from 16th century France; a Devoe from upstate New York; a Hosui from Japan; a Vavilov from Russia; or perhaps even a Pyrus betulifolia from the wilds of China. Essentially, every pear tree in each row is different.
Postman is a pear curator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. The agency funds the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Ore., which is a gene bank for the world’s pears. Such varieties may have little market value individually — hence the dominance of the Anjou and the Bartlett in today’s market. But this plant pathologist-turned-“gene librarian” has made it his life’s work to preserve in perpetuity the world’s genetic diversity of pears.
“To keep old heirloom varieties is important because they’re not grown as much but they still have useful traits,” Postman said. “We’re building a reserve of potential solutions for future problems. A lack of diversity is a genetic vulnerability.”
In addition to managing the living collection of more than 2000 different pear trees from around the world, Postman also curates collections of more than 800 different hazelnut and 150 different quince varieties.