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Rice Fruit said this apple season ‘different’ due to weather

It is a “different” year for apple production at Gardeners, PA-based Rice Fruit Co., said John Rice, vice president of sales and marketing.

“The crop situation not as good as it was the last couple of years,” he said. “Volumes will be down by at least 15 percent due to lighter fruit set this year. We had some hail damage early in the season. When it’s cool and rainy for an extended period, the apples don’t pollinate as well as they should.

“The undamaged apples, however, are good size and quality,” he added. “We just won’t have as many as normal.”

Much of Rice Fruit Co.’s business is on contract and programs with customers that it has established over the years.

“We’ll do our best to honor all of those programs, and we anticipate being able to do so,” said Mr. Rice. “But we will probably have to cut back in some areas — perhaps in exports — more than we have in previous years.”

Exports for Rice Fruit Co. have been strong in recent years. Mr. Rice said that the weakened U.S. dollar is good news for the export business, so the apple shortage comes at a particularly bad time. The company’s primary export markets have been Central America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Israel.

Rice Fruit Co. continues to produce a new club apple variety, the Kiku. Mr. Rice said that it is a sport variety, which is a variation that can be caused by a mutation that occurs on a limb.

“It is sort of a gift from nature when this occurs,” he said. “It’s from a Fuji apple tree, but the Kiku is larger and striped. It’s also sweeter than a Fuji.

“We’ve been working with the Kiku for several years, and the trees are now four and five years old,” continued Mr. Rice. “This is the second year that we will have commercial volumes. We had excellent response to the Kiku last year, and were very pleased with its performance. We were anticipating more production this year, but with the light fruit set, we’ll end up with about the same volume that we had last year.”

Mr. Rice added that the Kiku was discovered in Japan. The variety went to a handful of companies around the world under a sublicense from Columbia Marketing International, also known as CMI, which holds the license. Rice Fruit Co. has an exclusive on the Kiku in the east. It is also sublicensed in Deerfield, MI, and to other apple producers in the west.

The Kiku, Mr. Rice said, is a choice apple that retails at a higher price than other varieties.

“But even at the higher price, it was well received by retailers and consumers alike,” he added.

The Red Delicious variety continues to represent the largest volume produced at Rice Fruit Co., followed by the Golden Delicious, the Gala and the Fuji.

“We also have some Pink Lady apples,” said Mr. Rice. “It’s a very late apple, but it does well in this region. It tends to be a smaller apple, which is what keeps us from planting more. The larger sizes bring a good price, but the smaller sizes do not.”

Additionally, the Honey Crisp variety has become very important to Rice Fruit Co. Mr. Rice said that it is the only variety that seemed to get a nice set this season.

“It’s looking pristine on the trees right now,” he said. “We’ll start picking them the first week of September. There should be a few more than we had last year, which bucks the trend of the rest of our varieties being down. All of our Honey Crisp orchards are very young, and we’re increasing production every year. We are out of the gate over New York by a couple of weeks on the variety, which gives us a nice window.”

Rice Fruit is taking full advantage of the five new controlled atmosphere rooms it added to its facility last year. This year it is making changes to its packing lines so they will be more gentle and efficient.

Mr. Rice is one of four brothers who operate Rice Fruit. They represent the seventh generation in the business. Dave Rice is president in charge of the production facilities. Ted Rice is company treasurer and office manager, and Mark Rice is in charge of the orchard operations.

Three members of the eighth generation are now working at the company.

“Daniel Rice, Ted’s son, works primarily in IT,” said Mr. Rice. “Ben Rice, Dave’s son, works in production. And my son, Leighton, works in the orchards. We are moving them around a lot in the business so they learn about every area.”