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Innovation in the Apple Industry

We recently interviewed Leighton Rice. Leighton is the fifth generation at R&L Orchards and Rice Fruit Company in Adams County, Pennsylvania. Leighton is also a semi-finalist in the 2022 Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation and Farm Credit with his innovation StemPunk, which he'll discuss with us here today. Listen to the full podcast here: 


First, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself here.

To start off, you mentioned five generations, but it kind of depends how you count it. We actually say it's eight generations. That's when our relatives first immigrated from Southern Germany and that was in the late 1700s. They settled in Eastern Pennsylvania and made their way west eventually settling in Adams County. They decided that the foothills of the South Mountains here were ideal for growing tree crops.

Fast forward to 1955 and my grandfather built the first large scale storage and packing facility here in Gardner, Pennsylvania. That is when the trade picked up with supermarkets and the cold chain. That continues today. We also have a lot of large customers. Most of our markets are in the Mid-Atlantic. Our largest customer is Walmart. We also sell fruit to Lidl North America which is becoming a big customer. We also sell to Whole Foods and Publix.

I've been working in that industry for 14 years. Pretty much as soon as I got out of college, I made my way into the family business, and I started in the orchards. That is where I first developed a love for the lifestyle and interacting with trees. Eventually I developed my career more at the packing house.

You mentioned R&L Orchard, but the larger side of the family business is Rice Fruit Company, and we receive from a lot of different growers. Most of our receipts are from local growers, but we do receive a fair amount of fruit from New York state, some from Virginia and just recently we even started receiving some fruit from Canada. I am currently the quality assurance manager here. I sort of make my way into all the departments and all the conversations and make sure that everything goes right. I tell the people that work in my department that our job is to look for problems and solve them. It's not hard to find usually.

Now, let’s talk about your StemPunk invention. What is StemPunk and how did you come up with the idea?
Stem punctures are a major quality issue. You need to understand what that is and the way that you pick apples in the field. There are different ways of doing it, but essentially everyone is picking into a picking bag, which you wear around your shoulders. It's supposed to hold about a bushel of apples. Most of your listeners are acquainted with what a bushel is, but if not, it's about the size of a backpack. For apples it's about 40 pounds of apples. That's the USDA standard. The hard sort of knobby ends of the stems can sometimes be long and stiff. When the apples are bunched together in the bag or in the bin (typically bins hold between 20 and 25 bushels of apples) and they're wedged up against each other, the hard stem can pierce the skin on another apples.

When that happens, the apple that gets puncture is downgraded. I think that's unclassified by USDA standards and really can only be sold as juice. It also becomes an entry point for fungal pathogens and stuff in storage. A bad apple spoils the bunch, and that kind of disease pressure can accelerate in storage so that one bad apple turns into 10 bad apples and so forth.

If you're just talking about punctures, it could be because of the apples themselves, the crop load, the length of the stem, the shape of the apples, the manner of picking, or all of these things. In general, it can be about 6% to 8% of the apples in the bin that have this puncture mark on them.

For the longest time it was just disregarded by most growers and packers. They just figured, "Well, there's nothing we can do about it because an apple has to have a stem." Then the age of Honey Crisp came in and that's when you realized that you could actually charge $3.99 a pound for an apple at the retail level. That's a lot of money, which is returned even to the grower at that level. Really good prices like that especially benefit growers with the current sort of supply chain model. Then they said, "Well, we got to figure out a way to stop stem punctures?" They started using these clippers and they essentially looked like the kind of clippers you would use to clip your dog's claws. It works, but growers really hate it because it slows you down so badly

Penn State did a study in 2014, which showed that a picker, when in an hourly setting picking Honey Crisp, is going to go from about 15 bushels an hour down to 10 bushels an hour. That's a 33% loss in efficiency and also about a 50% increase in harvest costs per bushel. It slows you down right in the middle of your season at a time when you really can't afford to lose productivity. You've got all of your Golds and all of your Reds and all of your Fujis hanging there and getting tired. You might even have some Galas left on the tree.

I thought, "I go to a lot of trade shows. I keep up on new developments and new technologies." Some of that is forced upon me in my role here at Rice Fruit Company. I'm included in the team of people that gives reception to people coming in trying to offer new solutions to various issues. Some of them are very cool. Some of them are not even feasible at all. Either way, there's a lot of interest and investment and effort. There is a lot of intellect and technology put into all of this very fancy equipment. I go to field days where you see equipment that costs a quarter of a million dollars and it reticulates and it self-propelled and I just thought, "Well, there's all these really smart people working on these kinds of things and why can't someone come up with a way to just trim the stems on the apples faster?" With a mixture of boredom, audacity, and fearlessness I said, "Well, let me see what I can do."

I don't have the skills for product development. I don't know 3D drafting. I studied religion in college, so I spent all my time writing papers and reading poetry and things like that. I connected with a product developer who is based in Maryland in the late summer of 2016. Here we are more than five years later, and I have a product launch, which we're calling StemPunk. It was really nice to get this acknowledgement from the Farm Bureau and of course, to have that help initially from AgChoice. We have a long relationship with AgChoice. I would regard it as a side project because I do have this very demanding job here at the plant. It's a fun thing to have on the side keeping up with all the challenges.

This invention has earned you a spot as a semifinalist for the 2022 Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge. Congratulations! What’s involved in the competition and how will it help you further advance StemPunk?
It’s similar to Shark Tank. There are other competitions like this and others that I also applied for, but I think that this one is different because they truly try to honor people who are making a good effort on farm innovation. I looked at the other semifinalists and they're mostly from the Midwest. I think there's like three out of Nebraska. I've been on group calls with them and we're all kind of speaking the same language. We're all kind of not loving the attention and kind of shy and more comfortable in our roles at home and on the farm. There's a learning curve there

I certainly am thankful to AFBF and Farm Credit for the prize money. We've already been awarded $10,000. That was everyone's prize who was qualified as a semi-finalist we have a chance at the top prize, which is $50,000 total. That was very helpful to us, especially to secure the intellectual property.

That's another thing that I've had to learn. I think a lot of your listeners can appreciate that a farmer becomes a jack of all trades, but a specialist of none. Along the way you pick up all these skills and now I'm having to pick up skills like how to write a brief to support a non-provisional utility patent and how to research the prior art. I’ve also been learning how to build a website and manage sales on a website. I'm sure it's a lot easier than it used to be, but even just making content and doing promotion and marketing and having a social media presence, these are all things that I don't really like and I'm not especially good at. At the same time through forcing myself to do it I've picked up all these additional skills.

Again, it's just appreciating the daily tasks and not losing sight of the goals. I suppose at some point if I said, "This is totally futile and I have to give this up," then I would accept that. Until that happens, I just keep trying to solve the problems in front of me and hope for the best.

Agriculture has been founded on the principle of innovation, and oftentimes farmers and those in agriculture have lots of ideas on how to make improvements to processes. What suggestions or words of advice would you offer to others who have an innovative idea?
You hit the nail on the head. Farmers are natural innovators. Whether they like it or not, every day they're having to adapt to the weather. I would say that the important distinction there is it something that you're say tinkering with that works really well for you on your farm or is this something you're trying to tackle as some sort of a widespread goal in your industry or beyond your industry?


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