“Both our crop quality and holdings are better than expected because movement has been so strong,” John Rice, president of Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, PA, told The Produce News. “We had a great year last year due to the shortage of apples in the East, while we had a good crop. But we’re having an even better current year. Some of this may be attributed to us picking up a couple of new customers last year that have stayed with us. And we were poised to move more apples in the fall, and so our pricing was aggressive.”
Rice Fruit’s sales to date this season is setting an all-time record, and the company is on target for moving its crop — the largest in its history. Last year it moved a little over 1.9 million bushels, and this year it is at over 2.2 million.
“This also has to do with growers in Pennsylvania continuing to remove trees that were previously used for processing and replacing them with trees that will render fruit for the fresh market,” said Rice. “We expect this to increase our production even more over the next five years.”
Rice Fruit continues its strong concentration on its proprietary “Kiku” apple. It is one of three companies in the U.S. that is licensed to produce and sell the apple, and the only one permitted to sell it in the East.
“Consumer reaction to it is great, and that’s going to increase as more become available,” said Rice. “Production is increasing every year. Last year our supplies lasted to the end of January, but this year we have enough volume to last through late February.”
The “Kiku” represents only about five percent of Rice Fruit’s production, but that figure is expected to grow in coming years.
“Our number one apple in production terms continues to be the Red Delicious, followed by the Golden Delicious,” said Rice. “The Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp varieties are now third, fourth and fifth, respectively.”
The Red Delicious has been the most highly produced and sold apple in the U.S. for so long that hardly anyone remembers when it took the position. It was number one when Rice joined the family business in 1974, and he says he doesn’t remember how long prior to then that it held the “America’s favorite apple” placement.
But, things are changing varietal ways in other respects. Three years ago a Neilson statistic’s report that tracks food sales in supermarkets revealed that the Gala had overcome the Red Delicious in dollars spent on apples.
“Besides the Gala gaining in popularity, these statistics also speak to the fact that the Gala is a more expensive apple,” Rice pointed out. “It is now the number one apple in the country in dollars spent.
“But some growers are still hesitant to grow Galas because of production risks,” he continued. “Red and Golden delicious apple production continues to be strong because they are easy to grow.”
He added that the Honeycrisp has grown tremendously over the past five years, and most of the growth is due to word of mouth.
Rice expects prices to hold pretty firmly throughout the rest of the season.
“I have watched the apple deal for enough years to coordinate the number of apples in storage on the first day of each winter month and on a weekly basis,” he said.
“Prices are very encouraging this year. Washington’s crop is down considerably; to 113 million bushels according to the Dec. 1 report. That’s a major drop from last year, which was a huge crop for the state. Their movement and exports have been very strong. Anyone there who would speak honestly would admit that they are concerned about storage issues going forward because of the intense heat the crop suffered during the growing season. Often times the apples don’t show the effects of this type of stress until the storage process progresses.”
He added that friends of his in Washington have told him that they’ve never seen a year where they have had to do as much repacking to remove problem apples. Washington’s export markets are very particular about the quality of the fruit they receive, so the apples must arrive in excellent condition.
“Despite the issues, Washington growers are doing a great job of moving their fruit,” said Rice. On the Eastern side of the country, we’re waiting to see if Michigan can move their crop in an orderly and good fashion after nearly being wiped out last year. New York seems to be doing a good job, so they should have a positive season going forward.”