David Rice is president of Rice Fruit Company and manager of packing and storage operations.

David Rice is president of Rice Fruit Company and manager of packing and storage operations.

Richard Lehnert

In recent years, Rice Fruit Company has responded to several challenges that have changed its ­operations significantly.

David Rice, the president and eldest of the four Rice brothers who now manage Rice Fruit ­Company, identified plum pox as one of those challenges that led to a cascade of changes.

In 1999, plum pox was found in peach orchards in Adams County, the heart of the Pennsylvania fruit production area where Rice Fruit is located. The ensuing quarantine and eradication program resulted in the destruction of about three-fourths of the peaches in the county. Growers were indemnified, but they had to decide what to do with those peach sites that could not be planted to any stone fruit for several years. When the quarantine was lifted three years ago, most growers by then had chosen to plant apples.

“It changed the nature of our operation,” David said. Once a large peach packer, Rice Fruit now packs mostly apples. In a good year, the plant can pack 1.75 million bushels. The company now packs only 80,000 bushels of peaches—mostly produced by brother Mark on 110 acres of new orchards he planted outside the quarantine zone in 2001, 2002, and 2003. They also grow and pack about 20,000 bushels of European and Asian pears.

While peach growers were shifting to apples, all growers were also shifting to the newer fresh-market varieties, including Gala, Fuji, and Honeycrisp. The need for more capacity, plus the challenges of packing Honeycrisp, were responsible for more changes in the packing house.

David Rice manages the packing and storage operation that serves its own orchards and those of about 40 growers. The plant and storages are all under one roof located in the town of Gardners, Pennsylvania. In that facility, there is storage for 900,000 bushels in controlled- atmosphere storage and 300,000 in cold storage. CA-stored apples are treated with MCP (1-methylcyclopropene). They are in the process of transitioning from oak to plastic bins.

Two packing lines

Rice Fruit Company runs two packing lines and a presort line that handles about 50 bins an hour through 18 water flumes. That line contains a six-lane Compac sizer.

The main packing line is a stepped-up Compac InVision 9000 CIR sorter that can sort by size, shape, color, and surface blemishes.  This line is also equipped with Taste Tech near-infrared equipment that does internal defect and quality sorting, detecting flesh problems like internal browning, internal breakdown, bleeding, and watercore.

“The sizing equipment was chosen with Honeycrisp in mind,” David said about the new line that was installed three years ago. The new sorter is extremely gentle, he said, is able to handle large apples, and can do both internal and external defect sorting. Honeycrisp is noted for its bitter pit, but the sorter has been helpful in sorting out spots on all varieties. Scab, always a problem in eastern orchards, has been more so in recent years, and some hail damage is a problem almost every year.

“We upgraded our InVision sorter from the 5000 to the 9000 to do more external sorting,” he said. “It has greatly reduced the amount of hand sorting we need to do. Now, for the next year or two, we want to concentrate on ­internal quality sorting. We need to establish our own parameters for our own apples and those in our area.”

The plant packs about 400,000 bushels during harvest season. “We’re ten times as large as when this generation of managers took over,” David said, “and we probably need to grow some more. Our growers have planted new trees that will generate another 500,000 bushels a year.”

Stinkbug challenge

The arrival of the brown marmorated stinkbug added one more challenge to the sorting line. The bug feeds by inserting its feeding tube through the skin and deep into the apple. As it extracts the apple juices, areas of corky ­tissue form, sometimes well below the skin of the apple.

Feeding injury may not be detected when apples are put into storage but the damage shows up when apples are taken out. In 2010, when the stinkbug first made itself known to Pennsylvania growers, it was not known how big the impact would be.

“Growers had to learn how to handle the bug, and it is still not known how successful they will be,” David said. “So far this year, damage is not as great as we had feared it might be. We had feared catastrophic losses. As apples come out of storage this winter, there may be damage we didn’t see. We’re focusing on internal quality sorting for the next year or two.”

The plant employs 130 people, almost all who live locally, but most of whom are Spanish-speaking.

One goal is to offer them year-round employment. As the packing year wanes, usually about July, workers may work partial weeks and shorter days, David said. Packing apples from the Southern Hemisphere serves both the workers and Rice Fruit customers, who expect year-round fruit supplies.

More than counting apples

Computing power has made big changes possible at Rice Fruit Co. Treasurer Ted Rice, joined in recent years by his son Daniel, have developed a food safety and traceability program as well as a financial accounting system that assures growers get paid based upon the quality of the fruit they sell through the company.

“We operate as the growers’ agent, and they grant us the authority to do that,” Ted said. “Our goal is to ­maximize the value we get for our fruit.”

As boxes of packed fruit leave the warehouse, they carry a code that contains all the information accrued over the many steps from orchard to customer.

“I wrote the program over the years to do that,” Ted said.

When a bin of fruit arrives to be unloaded, a tag is applied that identifies the source of the fruit: grower, farm, block, commodity, variety, strain, date. When the bin is unloaded into the water flume for sizing, the data is transferred into the computer and a new tag is generated for the fruit that will go back into bins for storage.

“Traceability is becoming more important for growers as well as consumers,” Ted said. “Crop insurance is ­available, and growers can insure individual blocks for either fresh or processing. Yield records by block are very important to growers.”

Growers are paid according to how well their fruit packs out. “We know all the revenues that come from a bin of apples and what our charges are for what we’ve done,” Ted said.

The packing plant uses SQF auditing in its food safety program. Growers use USDA GAP in their orchards, but a transition is under way and growers who are new to Rice Fruit use Primus.