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Rice Fruit Company received a record 1.5 millon bushels of apples for packing this season. 

Rice Fruit Company received a record 1.5 millon bushels of apples for packing this season. 

Rice Fruit Company of Gardners, Pennsylvania, will pack a record 1.5 million bushels of apples this year, and a large proportion will go to Wal-Mart, its largest single customer.

John Rice, sales manager, said Wal-Mart likes to use local fruit in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio whenever it’s available.

Wal-Mart accounts for 22 percent of the company’s business. Normally, Wal-Mart does not want to account for more than 25 percent of any one supplier’s business because it does not want to put others out of business, Rice said.

“But they’ve become the biggest food retailer in the United States. I don’t think they can keep it at 25 percent. I don’t think they’d get enough supply that way. We’re the biggest supplier in Pennsylvania.”

The fruit for Wal-Mart is specially packed in reusable plastic containers, which Rice Fruit Company rents from a distributor at a cost of $1.10 each—about the same as cartons. Rice said he likes the plastic containers because they’re sturdy and can be stacked two pallets high. For incoming fruit, the company is transitioning from 25-bushel oak bins to 23-bushel plastic bins.

Rice Fruit Company was established by Arthur Rice in Biglerville, Pennsylvania, in 1913. In 1954, his son Arthur, Jr., built the current packing facility at Gardners. It has 18 CA (controlled atmosphere) storage rooms, and six regular storage rooms, providing space for 800,000 bushels of fruit.

The company packs fruit from an affiliated company, R & L Orchards, and from more than 50 other growers as far away as western New York and Maryland. The company operates year-round, and in the spring and summer stores and repacks apples from Chile for Columbia Marketing International based in Wenatchee, Washington. It also repacks cherries from Chile.

New technology

Packing of local apples begins in August with Ginger Gold. Red Delicious is its number-one variety, but it also packs Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Rome, Empire, Jonagold, McIntosh, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, Cameo, and Stayman. The company also packs peaches, nectarines, and European and Asian pears.

Most of the apples, except for Golden Delicious, are presized and packed to order, since many customers require different types of packaging. Costco, for example, wants display-ready cartons.

The company employs electronic color sorting and sizing to pack three grades—Premium Extra Fancy, a second grade Extra Fancy, and Fancy. New technology in use includes automatic baggers and palletizers.

Packing line updates are planned within the next 18 months, with the goal of reducing the 65-person packing crew by between 20 and 25 percent while at the same time improving quality. The company is waiting “impatiently” for on-line defect sorting and is ready to invest in pressure and sweetness sorting when the technology is ready, Rice said.