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Rice Fruit Co. is packing a new apple variety known as Kiku, which is showing promise for the Gardners, PA-based company, which has an exclusive license to sell the fruit in the eastern United States, while Columbia Fruit Packers in Washington has the license for the west.

"The apple was developed in Japan in the early 1990s," said John Rice, president. “An Italian company owns it, and they are spreading the license agreements to growers around the world. It is coming off of very young trees, and we had only supplies enough to send it to two customers this year. The comments we're getting back are very nice, and the apple is being very well received. It is sort of like a Fuji in that it’s very sweet, but it has a smooth finish and stripe that makes it very distinctive. It has the highest sugars that we’ve ever measured. When others are running between a 14 and 15 Brix, this one is at 17, although all our apples have a higher Brix level this year. The Kiku should be a very successful apple for us in the future.”

Regarding other business at Rice Fruit, Mr. Rice said, “Things are going surprisingly smooth this year. Our crop was shortened somewhat by dry weather last summer, so we don’t have as many apples as we usually do to pack through the end of the season. We expect to see some firming on prices as supplies diminish in Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan. We should have a strong finish to the season.”

Despite the shortages, Mr. Rice said the crop is excellent quality this year. The dry weather may have contributed to the smaller crop, but it helped to increase the sugar in the fruit. Sales in the fall were strong, and the high quality resulted in reorders from customers.

“Our supplies will not last through the next harvest,” he said. “I think we’ll be finished with some varieties in May, and probably all varieties will be gone by the end of June.”

Rice Fruit has enjoyed increases in sales for the export market in recent years, but Mr. Rice said that the shorter crop this year is causing the company to withdraw somewhat from its export business in order to insure ample supplies for its domestic clients.

“If foreign customers can’t get their apples from one place, they’ll go to another,” he said. “Much of the demand for exports this year will likely be passed on to Washington state, which has a strong export business. There is increased demand from Russia and India in particular, but other Far East markets like Singapore and Thailand are increasing their demand, as is Dubai and even some African countries. We sent a load each to Russia and Dubai early this season, and the fruit arrived in good condition. But we’re now forced to turn people away. It’s hard to say no to a customer because they may find someone else and decide to do business with them in the future. But we are dedicated to our domestic clients, and they have first priority.”

The company completed construction of a new storage building last year that adds an additional five controlled- atmosphere rooms to its operation. It is now revamping two packinglines with automated equipment that includes defect sorting with cameras that automatically kick lesser-quality apples out of the line.