family background/ Kyle is a fourth-generation grower, packer and shipper who returned to the farm about six years ago. He’s married to Kelli and is the son of Pam and Dave Benner.

grower/Fairfield, Pennsylvania
business/El Vista Orchards

How did you get your start?
When I was a high school kid, I’d come home and I’d want to go to work because I was interested in something. It was cool to find out later in life that my parents had a plan for me during those work times. They wanted me to experience something on the farm much bigger than what 18-year-old me could ever imagine.

I can look back now and see myself in those moments doing a task out in the orchard, whether it be pruning or clearing brush, and I can hear my dad’s words after the work was done — him congratulating me after I saw the job through.

That was him setting the stage for my future. He was teaching me that it wasn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take time, but in the end, I would be able to look at my work and be satisfied. That’s what it’s all about.

Why did you return to farming?
In high school, I was an active person in the local fire department — along with working on the farm. I remember being at the farm, but my mind would be focused on what I was doing at the fire department, and it spurred an interest to pursue public service by becoming a first responder. I was growing both aspects of my life at the time.

When I went to become a paramedic, I’d still return during the busy season at the farm to keep my fire going. Ultimately, when we started having kids, I realized that growing up on the farm was very special, and that’s what I wanted to offer to my kids.

As they grow, I see them doing things as I did, and I hope to be there to embrace those moments, like my dad did, and light that little candle inside each of them — to hopefully bring them home in the future, as it did for me.

When you came back, what did you want to do?
At that time, the produce world was shifting. The smaller growers, like us, were getting a little bigger and getting their hands into more things. We were in a transition with varieties from Red Delicious and Golden Delicious to Gala and Honeycrisp, and it was an exciting time.

It was exciting because as a young person there was new energy, new varieties and new technology. For the older generations, it was also exciting because for 25 years they had been doing a lot of the same things and there weren’t any great changes.

I feel like I came in at a pivotal time in the industry, especially where we were as a business. We had to make difficult decisions whether we were going to invest in technology. We had to take a leap of faith, deciding to put in a new packing line to boost our efficiency.

The five years prior to that, we were putting our investment into the orchards to grow the fruit. While I was working as a paramedic, my family was planting new Gala, Honeycrisp and Fuji, and all the while we needed to make changes on the shipping end.

When I came back, I looked at things and I saw an opportunity, because we had all the right varieties in the ground, however the technology we had to put that fruit in a box was very much outdated. That’s what my focus was when I returned, in the packing house, and to see it through.

What changes did you make?
We were operating a mechanical line with no vision system and sizing by weight only. Everything was sorted by human decisions. One person may look at one piece of fruit and make a certain decision, whereas another person looks at that same piece of fruit and puts it in a different box.

Those decisions were influencing the business in ways that we couldn’t control. With the new packing line, we’re using a computer vision system to sort our fruit for color, size and external quality.

The line labels the fruit by weight before it reaches its packing destination. By putting in a computerized packing line, it gives us an advantage as business owners to sort our fruit consistently for our buyers, customers and ultimately our consumers.

How did you get there?
A lot of planning went into that, mainly in the financial commitment and the design. We looked at what our customers wanted and what we needed to complete in a day’s time, and what we needed to install to pull that off and meet our goals.

It’s enabled us to reduce our cold storage space mainly because we are shipping more fruit earlier in the season and not having to put as much fruit into long-term storage.

All of these things were considered when looking at whether it was worth it to spend that much money on a new line for a farm of our size.

—TJ Mullinax