The Rice family has won prominence in the United States fruit industry in two ways: Family members have been in the right place at the right time, and they have also been in the right place at the wrong time.
The four brothers who run this Pennsylvania-based company were chosen by the advisory board of Good Fruit Grower to receive this year’s Good Fruit Grower of the Year Award.
One example of “right place, right time” happened way back in 1790, when family patriarch Daniel Rice saw the potential for growing fruit in the hills along the easternmost ridge of the Appalachian Mountains and planted one of the earliest fruit orchards in Adams County, Pennsylvania. The family today owns R & L Orchards comprising more than 800 acres of apples, peaches, and pears.
A second example occurred in 1913, when Arthur Rice built a packing house, not only to pack and ship the family’s fruit but other growers’ fruit as well. Today, Rice Fruit Company packs for about 40 other growers. It’s the largest fresh apple packing facility east of the Mississippi River, storing, packing, and selling about 1.7 million boxes of apples a year. Some of them are exported to countries in the Caribbean and Central America, filling containers that brought tropical fruits north. They also pack apples they bring in from the Southern Hemisphere.
The Alar incident
The outstanding example of “right time, wrong place” occurred in 1989, and it brought John Rice to prominence in the U.S. apple industry. He became the face of the industry during “the Alar scare.”
As he tells it, “I was chair of the IAI then, having moved up the officers’ progression, when the Alar issue emerged. (IAI, the International Apple Institute, was the forerunner of the U.S. Apple Association.) It started with a CBS broadcast on 60 Minutes. A chemical which made apples redder, 60 Minutes said, was carcinogenic—even more so to children than adults. And it was inside the apple and couldn’t be washed off. The story led to panic as mothers stopped and boarded school buses to take the apples out of their children’s lunch boxes.
“As chair of IAI, I was picked as the spokesperson. Even though the head of EPA and USDA both shrugged off the study behind the CBS report as junk science, it was a tough time to be heard and taken seriously.”
It wasn’t a good time to explain that Alar had been used on a portion of the national crop for nearly 20 years and besides making apples redder, it kept them from dropping off trees and made them firmer and crisper.
John Rice, soft-spoken and the epitome of calm and reason, was called into an arena with the formidable likes of CBS’s Ed Bradley, talk show host Phil Donohue, and actress Meryl Streep.
By May, however, public opinion was beginning to question the science behind the Natural Resources Defense Council’s assertion of the dangers of Alar, which was the basis of the 60 Minutes broadcast, Rice said. “Reporters became more sympathetic and opinion began to turn our way. There was some counter-reaction to the mass hysteria that had cost our industry $250 million in two months.”
After CBS faced criticism for creating false hysteria, 60 Minutes began to prepare a new broadcast to defend its actions. Rice was invited to New York. He was interviewed off the air for 45 minutes by Ed Bradley.
“I counted. Eleven times he asked me the same question, ‘Wouldn’t you and your industry be better off today if they had done more testing before they sold you Alar?’ He wasn’t really looking for my opinion. He wanted to make 60 Minutes look good.” Of that interview, Rice said, only 15 seconds appeared in the final broadcast in May of 1989. Rice also presented another 20-second statement, which IAI had insisted be included, unedited, as a condition for participating in the program.
“A lot of growers saw me for the first time,” Rice said of the notoriety. “I made the rounds and took the heat. Wrong place, right time.”
Fame that lasts
While the Alar incident gave John Rice that brief flash of fame, he and his family hew closely to the principles that built the family business in the first place. Today, four brothers (sons of Arthur Rice, Jr., the third generation to run the company, and the seventh generation to grow apples in Adams County) manage the company, and the next generation is stepping in.
As a young nephew once put it, “Mark grows the apples, David puts them in boxes, Ted counts them, and John sells them.”
John Rice does the sales and marketing. His son, Leighton, works for brother Mark in the orchard operation.
Mark, the youngest Rice brother, has two children still in high school who have not yet made career choices. Mark is president of R & L Orchard Company. R & L stands for Rice and Lott, two families that came together to grow fruit in a partnership that started in the 1950s. The name endures today, but the Lott family sold its interest to the four Rice brothers 25 years ago.
David Rice is the president of Rice Fruit Company. He manages production in the packing operation, and his youngest son, Ben, works for him.
Ted Rice is in charge of office operations and accounting. His son, Daniel, manages the company’s information technology. Between them, they have developed an outstanding food safety and traceability program.
Emphasis on fresh
In looking at the niche filled by Rice Fruit Company, it must be remembered that more than half the apples grown in Pennsylvania are grown for processing, and until recently that fraction was nearly three-fourths. The strategy of Rice Fruit Company and Arthur Rice, back in 1913, was to pack and ship fresh apples.
“My grandfather started the packing company in 1913 as a way of marketing fresh apples from Adams County in New York City and overseas,” John said. “Initially, most of the apples were York Imperial, which kept exceedingly well and were very firm and hard to bruise. They had a unique characteristic in that they could go through a freeze and still be firm and salable. That often happened as apples waited on the docks in New York City. They were packed in 100-pound barrels.
“The main drawbacks of the York were that it was lopsided, rough-skinned, and not very deep red.”
The rise of the Red Delicious variety didn’t particularly favor eastern growers. It was red, and it was typey, and eastern growers concede it often looks better when it is grown in the West, Rice said. (They think the eastern version tastes better, however.)
The arrival of bicolored apples ultimately helped eastern growers, Rice believes. Varieties like Gala, Fuji, and Honeycrisp were able to win customers even though they were not particularly red, but they had better flavor. “Our growers gravitated to these new varieties,” Rice said.
Secondly, there has been a new emphasis on “locally grown.” For millions of consumers in New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Adams County is essentially local, Rice said. “We are about the closest apple-growing region, and retailers now put more emphasis on local produce.
“This is really driving the growth of a company like ours. We’ve had to expand accordingly.”
Winning with growers
Some of the newer varieties, like Honeycrisp especially, have made packing more of a challenge. The coming of the brown marmorated stinkbug in 2010 complicated things even more. Both create quality issues that packers are called on to work around and through.
“We’re the biggest packer,” Rice said, “but we’re not the only packer. We have to deliver for our growers. They don’t have to sell their apples through us.”
In working with growers, Rice Fruit stores, packs, and sells for them, and their returns are based on both fruit quality and Rice Fruit’s packing and marketing abilities. Last year, the company installed new defect sorters that can pick up the spots caused by the stinkbug plus apple scab and bitter pit. The company has presorted by size, and is now presorting to remove apples with spots as well. Apples that won’t make the fresh pack are moved down the street to Knouse Foods. Both internal and external defect sorting occurs on the final packing line as well.
Rice Fruit is a long-time member of the Knouse Foods Cooperative, and three of its plants are less than five miles away. Knouse Foods takes most of the Rice Fruit sort-outs for juice or peelers.
Tapping into the Latin American fruit market has helped sales of older varieties, like Red Delicious and Golden Delicious, and also smaller apples, Rice said. The eastern cities get the bigger apples and the newest varieties that command the best prices.
“I’ve spent some time speculating why we were selected for this award,” John said of the Good Fruit Grower of the Year. “We are relatively well known, I think, because we spend so much time visiting with people from across the country. We have an open-door policy and share ideas. It’s a good policy because we learn so much as well.”