Mark Rice chose to go with Kiku, a high quality Fuji fruit strain that is easier to grow than Honeycrisp but can sell at a similar price.

Mark Rice chose to go with Kiku, a high quality Fuji fruit strain that is easier to grow than Honeycrisp but can sell at a similar price.

Richard Lehnert

Members of the Rice family are slow to return to the family ­business, says Mark Rice. They sometimes take long detours, getting liberal arts educations in nonagricultural fields like political science, philosophy, or religion from prestigious eastern universities.

The whole family believes in the value of liberal arts education. Mark’s brother John, who handles sales for Rice Fruit Company, has a degree in political science from Yale. Brother Dave, the president, graduated with a degree in economics from Princeton, where their father, Arthur Rice, Jr., also went. Brother Ted, the treasurer, graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in philosophy.

Mark is an exception in one way. He graduated from New York’s Cornell University with an agricultural degree, in horticulture, but he took his detours as well.

After graduation, he spent the year 1983 at the East Malling Research Station in Kent, England, and traveled to the Continent, where he saw and became much impressed with the emerging high-density vertical axis planting systems. He was so taken, in fact, he translated from French—using a ­dictionary and going word by word—a book describing the new systems. J.M. Lespinasse’s work, Apple Tree Management, can still be found, in both English and French, on the Rice Web site, www.ricefruit.com.

When Mark came back to manage and later become president of R & L Orchards and its 800 acres of fruit, which he and his family own, he put into practice what was to become state of the art. Since state of the art continues to change, he’s changing some things, but says it’s hard to beat what he has.

Productive orchards

While their orchards, like most in the East, are shifting from processing to fresh-market varieties, Mark does not envision ending production of apples for processing.

“As long as the market holds up at all, it is an advantage to us, as we can divert second-quality apples away from our fresh-market channels,” Mark said. “Also, it allows us some leeway in the timing of the harvest to optimize fresh-market maturity. Options are always a good thing. We are very fortunate to have a strong processor, Knouse Foods, in business here in Pennsylvania.”

He’s reluctant, he says, to bear the cost of planting a thousand or more trees per acre, when what he has he describes as “incredibly productive.”

In the mid- to late 1990s, R & L planted about 250 acres of apples on Malling 7 rootstock and a parallel V system. Each tree has one root and two stems trained as vertical axes, so it took only 218 trees to plant an acre on a 10- by 20-foot spacing. “That substantially eased capital costs in a time of tight margins with extensive orchard renovation necessary,” Mark said. “At present, our production is really strong in most of those orchards, averaging as much as 1,500 bushels per acre and occasionally exceeding 2,000.”

The price he pays, of course, is that trees on more vigorous rootstocks are taller and harder to pick and require very careful, or scientific, as Mark sees it, pruning to keep them in line. “We also do rely on the benefits of Apogee ­[prohexadione calcium] on everything but Empires and young trees,” he said.

The emerging 3- by 10-foot spacing in the tall spindle system is “a different animal than anything I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “I don’t know if we can consistently be successful with that spacing on our slopes or grow the trees without irrigation.” Trellises don’t construct well on stony, hilly ground, water availability is an issue, and 10-foot alleys on steep hillsides don’t give much room for error when planting, mowing, spraying, and harvesting, he said.

“The advantages of growing apples in Adams County are that we’re close to market, have moderate winters and generally good natural frost control in the spring on our hills, can most years hope to see adequate rainfall, and have, in our best ground, good drainage and yet drought resistance,” Mark said. “Some of the disadvantages are the hills and little water for irrigation.”

Like other growers in the area who are installing trickle irrigation, Rice relies on spring water that feeds ponds.

In choosing new varieties, Mark has been somewhat cautious. Like other growers, he has planted Honeycrisp and likes the price but not the problems of growing them.

R & L Orchard Company normally produces crops of more than 100,000 bushels each of Red and Golden Delicious. Fuji is the third leading variety followed by Gala and then, in order, York Imperial, Granny Smith, Rome, Empire, Mutsu, Jonagold, Idared, Nittany, Honeycrisp, and Ginger Gold.

Kiku

R & L Orchards has a contract with Columbia ­Marketing, Inc., in Wenatchee, Washington, to produce and market the Fuji Brak strain trademarked Kiku, for which Columbia Marketing has exclusive rights in the United States.

“Our first harvest was in 2010,” Mark said. “Kiku was selected for quality. It has excellent levels of sugars and exceptional taste. It’s a bit easier to grow than Honeycrisp, but we’re hoping for a similarly high price.”

The Kiku are planted on a 6- by 20-foot planting, held in place by a single steel stake for each tree.

Mark’s brother John, who sells Rice Fruit apples, doesn’t think retailers want to put out ten or more varieties. “Seven or eight is a struggle,” he said. “I expect to see the club varieties utilized on a rotating basis.”

He is pleased to see that consumers seem to be buying apples less on appearance and more on taste.

“The quest over the next 25 years is to identify the best apples and then find which ones grow best where,” he said. He believes that Adams County apples taste sweeter than those from most other areas, and that in the future, growers will do a better job of matching varieties to sites—and Adams County has some excellent sites.

A place for peaches

Mark also grows peaches—five to ten acres each of some 15 to 18 varieties, of which Contender is the most productive, he said. The farm lost all its peaches to the plum pox eradication program in 2000. Mark took the compensation, bought suitable peach land ten miles away outside the plum pox quarantine zone, and planted 110 acres of peaches.

“Before plum pox, we had 160 acres of peaches,” Mark said. “We lost all of that.”

The new plantings, made in 2001–2003, are grown in the perpendicular V system—two stems from one trunk, each leaning slightly into the row alley. About 13 feet tall, they need to be pruned, thinned, and picked using step ­ladders.

“They’re too tall to pick easily, but so far that hasn’t really worked against us,” Mark said. “It is not the most labor-efficient system, clearly. But, it is productive and gives us work to bring people in and start our steady harvest season. We have 60 or more people going during mid-peach season, which is almost three-quarters of the way to our apple harvest crew. I feel that as long as there is a margin, it is better to take advantage of the increased productivity of the V’s and make up in volume what we forego in cost efficiency.”

In the event of labor shortages, these perpendicular V orchards would offer opportunity to mechanize. Mark has tried platforms, a modified cherry shaker for thinning green peaches, and a Darwin string thinner, but hasn’t put any of these into general practice.

“We’re not convinced that men working on platforms are more efficient than a single person working in a bucket. We use hydraulic ladders of several models, and we’re fine with that.”

About thinning, he said, “We tried the Darwin, but it did a lot of tree damage, and it is nonselective. On our hills, it takes a very good operator.”

For thinning, Mark uses a combination of things—late pruning to remove unwanted blossoms before they bloom, ammonium thiosulfate to burn some blossoms at full bloom, tree shaking to remove green fruit, and hand thinning.

Mark has worked several years to modify old limb shakers developed for use in tart cherry harvest more than 50 years ago—and later abandoned in favor of trunk shakers. Mark and his key people have worked to refine the design and find the best shaker vibration frequency. “Our latest model looks pretty good,” he said. “We have low tree injury, and it doesn’t overdo the tops.” R & L has also used pneumatic handheld shakers with success.

In the East, peaches are prone to a number of diseases, especially cankers, that shorten their lives to 15 years or less. “The V trees seem a little healthier, more resistant to canker,” he said. “But it’s harder to grow a big peach on the V system.”