Although it is located in the Eastern United States, Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, PA, is a major exception to the huge crop losses most growers suffered in 2012. In fact, the company has the largest crop of apples in its near 100-year history.
John Rice, president of the company, told The Produce News that the firm’s situation is different than other apple producers due to its precise location in the Adams County Fruit Belt.
“We are in what is traditionally a frost resistant region due to the natural protection of the mountains to our west and north,” explained Mr. Rice. “The cold air that dips down from the north gets locked into the mountain ridges and settles in the valleys. While the rest of the east was getting hit with severe freezes, the cold air did not get beyond the mountains to us.”
The trees blossomed early, leaving them exposed for a few weeks and causing concern, but they were spared. The rest of the growing season was fortuitous to the crop.
Mr. Rice said the crop size this year is a validation of something that is said about apple crops: “Big crops get bigger and small crops get smaller.”
He explained, “If there are a lot of apples on the trees when you take your estimate prior to harvesting, it’s common that the actual crop that is harvested is even larger than anticipated. If you have a small estimate, it’s pretty certain that the crop will be even smaller than estimated. This turned out to be totally true for us this season.”
Rice Fruit’s crop was, in fact, so large that the company filled up its own storage space and had to seek additional storage elsewhere.
The company is benefiting from the high prices this year, caused by the overall Eastern shortages.
“Prices are the strongest we’ve ever seen,” said Mr. Rice. “This is particularly true for processing apples. While this side of the industry tends to put a floor on what they pay for apples, we’re seeing them pay as much as double this year.”
Fresh market prices are also up, but not double. Mr. Rice said he is seeing $3-4 dollars for the standard tray pack 40-pound box, which amounts to about 10 cents a pound higher.
“Those who have apples are doing very well this year,” said Mr. Rice. “We expect to have supplies possibly even into August, depending on fruit sales in the spring. So far [mid-December] sales have been very strong. We have sold more apples than we’ve ever sold in our history to date, and we expect sales to stay strong as we head into summer.”
He humbly added that the situation this year is highly unique, and there have been many years where the company’s crop losses were very high.
The company is also pleased with the quality of its apples this season. It utilizes controlled atmosphere storage, but it also treats the apples with “SmartFresh.”
“The chemical name for ‘SmartFresh’ is 1-MCP [1-Methylcyclopropene],” said Mr. Rice. “It helps the apples to stay crisp longer.”
Rice Fruit Co. installed a new “Compac” packing line last summer, giving the company a total of three packing lines made by “Compac.” The line cost the company $2 million, but it was in just in time for this very big season.
The company’s “Kiku” apple, a new club variety that Rice Fruit has the exclusive rights to in the Eastern United States, is performing very well. Its volume doubled this season, and it expects to continue to increase production rapidly going forward. This is the third season that the company has had the variety available.
The record-setting apple crop this season is in good timing with the company’s 100 anniversary in 2013.
“My grandfather, Arthur Rice Sr., started producing apples in the Adams County Fruit Belt in 1913,” said Mr. Rice.
“I believe he knew that the mountain ranges would be beneficial in creating our microclimate. Apples have been grown here since the 1700s,” he added.