All of their original trees subsequently fell victim to bacterial infection and blight. And that's when the couple decided that their ultimate goal was to develop hardy pear varieties that are disease-resistant and best suited to the growing conditions in Virginia. They also set out to create signature pear flavors they could call their own.
Hybridizing or the crossbreeding of plants is all about the blooms -- at least at the start, anyway. Then, it's all about patience.
In Virginia, Asian pears come into flower throughout April, according to the variety. There are hundreds of varieties that grow around the world. A hybrid enthusiast can mix and match at will.
When the flowers open, Estabrook must act quickly. Between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., before the bees make a move, she uses a fine, camel-hair artist's brush to transfer pollen from the flower of one established variety to another. A plastic bag covers each bloom until the infant fruit forms. Every cross-pollination is logged, by hand, in a notebook with information on the rootstock, disease history and production capabilities. She selects for crossbreeding varieties with dominant genes associated with disease resistance, vigorous growth and good taste.
In late summer and early fall, she gathers the individual fruits from her experimental trees. After sampling them for flavor, she saves the seeds. It's the seeds she's after. Hundreds are planted in rows in a seedling nursery.
Over a period of years, natural selection kills off more than 90 percent of the new saplings. When Estabrook feels the timing is right, the hardiest young trees with the largest leaves are grafted onto established pear stock. After seven more years, the trees bear the all-new fruit. But not all are successful -- sweet and delicious.
For an informal tasting, Estabrook chooses two new, unnamed pears from experimental row nine. Each is washed to remove a clay dust that deters insects.
"I just hope it's not mushy," says Estabrook as she cuts into the first one. Then, "Ummm. Sweet." The second contestant receives an immediate thumbs-down for its small size, dark-brown color and flavor that brings pancake batter to mind. Estabrook says only, "No good."
Paul Estabrook believes that there is an urgency to produce unique pears as soon as possible.
"When we moved here in 1990, one of the key things was that no farmers were even thinking about Asian pears. We've had the market to ourselves," says Estabrook. "But in five years, maybe, lots of other farmers will have Asian pear orchards. We have to be a head above the others."
Estabrook agrees with her husband that the hybridizing will pay off. To that end, the couple has built a new greenhouse for seedlings. But she has some reservations about a future tied to an uncommon fruit.
"If you asked me, I would not do this again. It's too discouraging. A hurricane comes through and all the fruit falls. The birds. The bugs. The disease," she says. "But I am happy to have this wonderful place and have people who appreciate our organic fruit."