Past Apple Grower Of The Year Winners Reflect On Changes In The Industry

In preparation for the announcement of the 25th Apple Grower of the Year this coming August, we wanted to reconnect with past winners and reflect on changes in the industry, and on their own farms. For this issue, we talked to three individuals from the Mid-Atlantic region: John Rice of Rice Fruit (the first Apple Grower of the Year winner in 1989), Brad Hollabaugh of Hollabaugh Bros., Inc. (the winner in 2000), and Nathan Milburn (who won with this father Evan in 2008).

What are the biggest changes you have made to your business in the time that has passed since you were named Apple Grower of the Year?

Hollabaugh: Our biggest changes relate to our increased focus on direct marketing. Our new plantings reflect an investment in varieties which support our marketing plan. The construction of a new retail market facility in 2012 has provided a platform to reach our customers successfully in more diverse ways. Our new apple plantings are high-density spindle systems on four-wire trellis. Our goal is to not only optimize production but also to add the use of platforms in our production system.

Milburn: Any newer varieties that we are able to purchase have been planted and are in the ground. Our farm market is now twice as big. Our cherry acreage has doubled, and we are adding corporate events and weddings to our entertainment options.

Rice: In the last 25 years, there has been a world of change in the way that we do business. Back then we communicated by phone from an office or a phone booth. Now we communicate by email or phone from anywhere at any time. My iPhone keeps me in touch with everything that is happening when I’m away. But the business still runs on relationships. In the end we have to have a good relationship with the person we are dealing with based on trust. No matter how much technology changes, there is no substitute for integrity.

How have you kept up with new innovations in technology on the farm?

Hollabaugh: We are utilizing the Internet in new ways each year. For example, this season we plan to take advantage of some of the new weather station technologies that allow us to integrate with NEWA (Network for Environment and Weather Applications). Smart phones have become a basis not only for communication on farm but also access to various apps and the Internet. Of course, we use the Internet extensively for communications between and among the various Penn State research and Extension teams that support our industry.

Milburn: For me, I am starting to carry a smart phone now, and I don’t know what I would do without it. I’m not sure how I got business done before in a productive way. We also are in the midst of adding an automated weather station.

Rice: My father always said that any company that is not going forward is going backward. That has never been more true than today. Twenty-five years ago, electronic color sorting was still a novelty. Now we have external and internal defect sorting that can measure sugar content and fruit pressures.  The machines that handle our fruit are faster and gentler, and the technology that we use to store the fruit is much more sophisticated and effective.

What is the biggest challenge you are facing now that you may not have faced when you were named Apple Grower of the Year?

Hollabaugh: Our biggest challenges are associated with the burden of new government regulations which pervade almost every aspect of our operation. New regulations on the financial industry have changed how we do business with banks. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg regarding new health care regulations — and costs. Compliance with food safety and food security requirements have increased substantially. And, of course, our labor situation remains a liability for our industry unless or until our Congress can “fix” a broken system.

Milburn: Five years ago I could get employees when I needed them. That’s not the case today.

Rice: I think the biggest challenge our industry faces now is in the area of food safety. Ironically, I was named Apple Grower of the Year in 1989 when I helped to defend the industry from charges that we were poisoning the nation’s children with Alar. To this day you could not find anyone who was harmed by that chemical, but we all learned then that perception can be more important than reality. Now the country has turned its attention to the only real food safety problem we have had for hundreds of years, not pesticides but pathogens. I think it is appropriate to expect that the food industry should adopt best practices of cleanliness and sanitation in producing the world’s food supply. But I think it is unrealistic to expect that the produce industry can raise natural foods on God’s earth without any contamination or bacteria. The world is not like that, and it never was. But now there are “food lawyers” circling who can put a company out of business overnight if the company is unlucky enough to be connected to a food-borne illness outbreak.

Take the question above, but replace the word “challenge” with “opportunity.”

Hollabaugh: The biggest opportunity has been the distinctive social shift toward locally grown and sold farm products. This trend has fortified direct marketing for our industry. Learning the best way to accommodate some of the shifting social perceptions is the challenge. Also, for our company, the addition of younger family members has added depth, energy, and inspiration to our organization. It’s easier to plan for the future when there is a level of certainty about the reasonable continuation of the family business!

Rice: We still have a world of opportunity out there. I think it is amazing what people are willing to pay for Honeycrisp apples in order to have a delightful eating experience. If we could deliver that kind of experience to every apple consumer, we could sell many more apples than we are selling now, at higher prices than we are selling now. But all of us in the industry have to be dedicated to that goal.

What’s next at your farm?

Hollabaugh: I think the biggest change for us was accomplished in 2012 with the construction of our new retail market. The new facility provides the platform for us to integrate many new things into our marketing plan, and we hope to engage the public in a more consistent and reliable way with regular programming, enhanced farm tours, educational programming for children, and special events. From the standpoint of production, our shift to new management systems represent the beginning of many changes in how we work with and harvest our fruit.

Milburn: We need to expand our season and are looking to add strawberries. We are highly diverse, but have not gotten into strawberries yet. I think it’s time.

Rice: I don’t know what’s next. That is one of the reasons that the apple industry has been so interesting for me. Every year is different, as we all know.  But we have members of the next generation coming into the business now that have a lot of their own ideas about what we should do next. They want to grow better apples than we are growing now and do a better job of packing and selling them. I have also heard them talk about diversifying into hard apple cider and vodka. Whatever they do, I’m sure they will have their ups and downs just as we did. But my son represents the eighth generation of Rice’s to be growing apples here in Pennsylvania, so we must be doing something right.

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