Apr 7, 2007
IFTA Conference Features Largest Eastern Fruit Packer

Touring orchards with Mark Rice is an experience to savor. It exposes you to his cryptic combination of broad production expertise and orchard knowledge, facility with English (and several other languages), political insight tinged with sarcasm and ends with poetry – that day a verse from T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland.” Mark Rice toys with your head.

Mark and his brothers came into the limelight, where they’ve been before, in late February when Rice Fruit Co., the largest fresh fruit packer in the East, provided key parts of the program of the International Tree Fruit Association’s annual conference in Hershey, Pa. The brothers were given the Grower of the Year Award – and Mark’s the grower in what is mainly a fruit packing business.

Both Mark and John gave talks during the IFTA sessions, and IFTA attendees toured the packing plant and orchards of Rice Fruit Co.

“The organization of the Rice family is: Mark grows the apples, David puts them in boxes, Ted counts them and John sells them,” Mark said.

Before the day is out, we learn the Rices originally were German immigrants named Reiss and their operations in Adams County, Pa., started about 1790 on Potato Road near Bendersville, Pa. – making them Der Reissen von Kertoffel-Strasse.

The family emigrated to escape the calamities of European governments, but Mark isn’t sure how much improvement was made. Since 2000, they’ve lost all their peaches in a U.S. government program aimed at eradicating plum pox virus, which was found in Adams County near their farm. Those 143 acres of peaches cost the government $1.86 million to indemnify, but helped put them back in the peach business on a new farm outside the quarantine zone.

Even with the indemnity that restored R & L Orchards (the part of the business Mark manages), Rice Fruit’s packout of peaches fell from 200,000 bushels in the late 1990s to 60,000 bushels last year, costing the company an “unindemnified” $4 million in lost sales, Mark said.

To top it off, “there has never been a successful eradication of any pest, or so I’ve been told,” he said. “The D strain, which we have here, isn’t even considered a pest of peach in Europe.”

Yet, he said, the odds are even the new 96-acre orchard they planted will be sacrificed next year, since the disease has spread.

“We like to do things fiasco-style,” Mark said. “We try to make a fiasco of everything we do and generally are quite successful. Mother nature always helps, too. In doing things fiasco-style, we feel we are being patriotic. We are emulating our federal government, but frankly we can’t hold a candle to those guys when it comes to making a fiasco of things.”

Mark gave pruning demonstrations in his peach orchards, showing how the Perpendicular Vee is established. A young tree is cut back to two limbs, branching perpendicular to the peach row. These do not spread as they would in the Open Vase style, but grow upright to about 14 feet, at which point they are headed.

“Respect apical dominance,” Mark said.

Trees are pruned and harvested by a crew of Mexican workers using tall stepladders. Limbs on the two scaffolds are kept short, and each tree resembles twin pillars.

The Perpendicular Vee is considered to have potential for use with pruning and harvesting platforms, a partial step toward mechanization.

Mark showed another effort in the mechanization direction – a vintage Friday cherry orchard shaker being tested (and modified) to use as a peach fruit thinner. To avoid letting “his competition” know about this, Mark insisted the shaker was “a vitamin injector.”

Mark also translated, from French, J. M Lespinasse’s work, “Apple Tree Management,” into English. Both English and French versions are on the Rice Web site, www.ricefruit.com.

And the poem:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Inside the packing plant, visitors watched Red Delicious moving through a presizer, in which apples were sorted by size and color as they moved in water. Bins of apples were immersed and the apples gently floated out and moved in a stream. Each apple was evaluated and moved into one of 18 flumes of water and put back into bins for storage.

The apples are packed out as ordered in a simplified process, since some sorting and sizing has already been done.

“We are still impatiently waiting for defect sorting and will invest in pressure and sweetness sorting when those technologies are ready,” John Rice said.

The presizer handles about 50 bins of apples an hour and is used on all the apples except Yellow Delicious and McIntosh.

Rice Fruit is the largest apple-packing facility in the Eastern United States. The plant packs about 5,000 cartons a week running a single-day shift. Sales last year totaled $17 million, with the largest customers being Wal-Mart, D’Arrigo Bros. and Costco.

Last year, 54 apple growers in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York brought 1.5 million bushels of apples to the plant, owned by the Lott, Tyson and Rice families, who provide about 40 percent of the fruit. The company packs fruit year round, using 18 controlled atmosphere storage rooms with a 590,000-bushel capacity. In the spring and summer, it stores and repacks fruit from the Southern Hemisphere.

Rice Fruit was founded in 1913 by Arthur Rice, who expanded beyond the family orchard business when he built his first packinghouse in Biglerville, eight miles north of Gettysburg.

It is now managed by the four brothers, who represent the third generation of the family to run the business. The 800 acres of apples, peaches, nectarines and pears they grow account for about one-fifth of the fruit packed and marketed by Rice Fruit Company.

David is the president, in charge of plant operations and personnel. Ted (Arthur Rice III) is in charge of office operations and accounting. John is responsible for sales and marketing. Mark is president of R&L Orchard Company.

Arthur Rice Jr., whose father died when he was a young man, built a new packing facility at the company’s present location in Gardners, five miles north of Biglerville. He also formed a partnership with William Lott to form R&L Orchards. The partnership between the Rice and Lott families continues today.

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
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