Only a dozen or so miles north of Gettysburg, on Route 34 north of Aspers, sits the site of a long-standing county fixture — The Rice Fruit Company. The busy apple processing plant is located amid a rural landscape surrounded by apple orchards.
The Rice family first started packing fruit in 1913. “We can trace back eight generations that have been growing apples in Adams County,” said recently-retired Vice President John Rice. For the past decades the company has focused exclusively on processing apples for the fresh fruit market, and is now managed by the company’s 4th-generation: Ben Rice, Emily Rice-Townsend and Leighton Rice.
The flat warehouse-like buildings spread out across the property and one could only guess what’s inside by observing the tractor-trailer loads of apple bins that appear with regularity during the mid-October fruit harvest.
As each truck from a neighboring orchard pulls into the driveway its many fruit bins are scanned by an iPad, giving the buyers a general idea of what’s in each one. A few sample fruits are taken into the plant where they are pressure-tested to gauge the quality and ripeness of the crop.
A few apples from each bin are checked
One by one the bins are moved Inside the first building, where each, containing about 20 bushels of fruit and weighing up to 1,000 pounds, is lowered into a pool of water. The apples float to the surface and their processing voyage through the plant begins. Water works magic for apple processing because apples transported via water are less likely to be bruised.
The apples are moved through the plant on water sluices
The floating apples are pushed into a series of sluices where hi-tech machines do the work, processing up to 1,000 bushels per hour. Machines size the apples and inspect them for color and shape. Those too small or too damaged are sent away to become juice or sauce. Only the very best will be packed as fresh fruit.
In the next building the interiors of the applies are inspected with infrared scanners and each is given a light coating of wax. Organic apples don’t get this treatment, but they don’t look as shiny to the customer and they dehydrate faster.
The apples are machine-sorted
Finally the small oval labels, each with a bar code, are pasted on the individual fruit.
In the next stage the sorted, cleaned, and inspected fruit is packed into boxes which quick-operating robots stack onto pallets, laying each one into perfect Lego stacks, never missing a beat.
The robotic stackers are manufactured in Spain. “They are pretty new for us, but it’s very hard to find people to stack boxes. It’s hard on their bodies,” said Rice. Rice said eight people who had originally stacked the boxes had transitioned into new jobs. “It took a long learning curve,” he said.
Vice President of Sales and Marketing Brenda Briggs said the company had good retention of its 100 or so workers, but that other challenges from the pandemic had cropped up. “It’s hard to find the parts you might need,” she said.
Robots Pack the Boxes onto Pallets
On the other side of the room, dozens of workers put the apples into clear plastic bags for sale in the produce section of stores. The bags are destined for Walmart, Whole Foods, and other retailers.
John Rice with the fall processing chart
The process ends when the pallets of crated apples are piled high into one of the 41 controlled storage rooms in other buildings. Here the apples are quickly cooled to 31 degrees Fahrenheit and sprayed with methylcyclopropene to aid in refrigeration. The doors to the rooms are sealed, and the oxygen is removed, leaving only nitrogen. Here the apples can stay in storage for up to a year, until the next crop is picked.
“Refrigeration puts the apples to sleep but controlled storage puts them in a coma,” said fruit quality manager Leighton Rice.
Coordination along the processing line among the 100 or so employees, mechanics, and supervisors is highly coordinated – an art form of sorts. “It takes everyone moving in the same direction. There’s a lot that can go wrong,” said Biggs.
Rice Fruit packs about 7 million bushels of apples from over 40 local growers each year, as well as those from their own farms, which make up about 20 percent of the total. Each farmer’s apples are tracked individually through the processing stages and the farmers are paid by the quality of the product that is packed. Payments to the farmers directly track the price the company is able to charge the buyers. “The grower gets the net after we deduct our processing fees,” said Rice.
Rice said more and more growers were producing apples to sell as fresh fruit which bring the highest prices. Rice said the popular Honeycrisp apples fetch the highest prices but are also the most difficult to grow.
The company brands its apples as “Sweet Natured Fruit,” and many hands work hard to make them so.