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.
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.
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