After a college experience studying religion and poetry, becoming an inventor was not a career path Leighton Rice expected to follow. But after joining other members of his family at Rice Fruit Company as the quality manager, Rice found a way to make a novel contribution.
“Farmers are innovators by necessity. You’re always trying to find clever workarounds,” said Rice. His invention, now patent pending, is called the “Stem Punk,” a lever-operated machine worn by apple pickers that allows them to tightly clip the apple stem while using only one hand.
“We have a problem in our industry where long stems on one apple will puncture another apple in the bin,” said Rice. “Almost 8 percent of the apples get punctured and they have to go to juice.”
Rice said it is becoming more common for pickers to use hand clippers to cut the stem below the shoulder so it can’t puncture. “But the downside of that is that it’s a lot slower because you have to use two hands,” he said.
The Stem Punk connects to straps on the picking bag, allowing the picker to work with only one hand by holding the apple in place and activating the cutter with the wrist.
“I’m the quality assurance guy here. I’d see this damage to the fruit. We’d make the official recommendation to the growers but they didn’t always do it. I knew there had to be a better way,” said Rice.
Rice collaborated with product developer Chris Toner over the past five years to create the Stem Punk, bring the invention into use, and create a new business called Rice Systems.
When the machine was ready the invention was entered into the 2022 American Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge. Rice was honored as a semi-finalist with $15,000 in prize money at January’s awards presentation in Atlanta.
Noting the similarity to the science fiction genre “Steampunk,” Rice said Stem Punk is a play on words on “stem” and “puncture.” “It’s the punk that solves the punctures,” he said.
Rice said although many of the the other winners at the innovation challenge were focused on robotics, the Stem Punk is low tech. “It’s kind of a scaled-up nail clipper that uses levers to bring two cone-shaped blades together.”
“Growers want low-tech more than robotics. Machines are great when they work, but they’re expensive and only work about half the time,” he said.
Rice said the business was off to a good start, with demonstration models already being used in the U.S., New Zealand, and Chile.
See more photos and a video of the device at Stem Punk’s website.
Featured image caption: Rice (left) and Toner with stem punks.