Roscoe Crist: Apple Grower of the Year

Roscoe Crist: Apple Grower of the Year

Roscoe and Marylou Crist

Roscoe and Marylou Crist

Picking out J. Roscoe Crist in a crowd is pretty easy — his long,lanky frame puts him several inches above most people. But the reason this New Yorker stands out among fellow apple growers has nothing to do with his height. Rather, it is his willingness to break new ground, take on tough assignments, and work tirelessly on behalf of the apple industry that have earned him respect, recognition, and American and Western Fruit Grower’s Apple Grower of the Year award.

Now in its fifth year, Apple Grower of the Year recognizes a grower who not only is a skilled orchardist, but who also has a significant record of service to the apple industry and fellow fruit growers. Located in Walden in New York’s Hudson Valley, Crist Brothers Orchards Inc. includes about 500 acres of apples, with McIntosh, Empire, Red Delicious, and Rome as leading varieties. A state-of-the-art packing house and storage facilities (including 14 controlled atmosphere rooms) are also part of this operation that traces back to 1883. Started by his grandfather as a small general farm and transformed into an apple orchard by his father, Roscoe and his brother Edward took over the reins in the 1950s. With Edward’s retirement two years ago, Roscoe and his nephew Jeff are now the top managers.

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Pesticide Issues High Priority
Crist has played a key role in pesticide-related issues, mainly through his role as a member and then chairman of the International Apple Institute’s OAI) Environmental Affairs Committee. This committee convinced the apple industry that a survey of growers and packers to determine actual pesticide use — which could then be used to replace inaccurate estimates or “worst case” scenarios — was a vital move. Committee members — such as former Apple Grower of the Year Steve Wood and Larry Elworth, of the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Board — are bright, energetic, articulate, and also given to strong opinions. Crist downplays his role, but he obviously had the right personality and skills to harness that energy and develop a consensus.

“We never had what I would call an ‘organized’ meeting,” laughs Crist. “It was very loose, everybody had something to say, and we usually had at least two conversations going on at once.”

Out of this apparent chaos came the pesticide use surveys that put the apple industry out in front of all other agricultural groups. With its ability to supply actual pesticide use data, the industry has been able to refute erroneous assumptions, has bolstered its image as a responsible industry producing a safe product, and has gained the respect of the EPA and many members of the environmental community. The surveys have also been important in addressing questions on specific chemicals, like the EBDCs, a class of fungicides that recently were scrutinized by EPA. “I do not believe that use on apples would have been retained on EBDC labels without the IAI surveys,” says Crist.

Maintaining Research Is Vital
Maintaining horticultural research is another priority area for Crist. Retired researcher Chick Forshey says Crist has played a vital role in maintaining the Hudson Valley Laboratory, a research station that has done important work on behalf of New York growers. Describing Crist as “a strong and active supporter,” Forshey notes that, “In these days of increasing centralization, computerization, and bureaucratization, maintaining a strong field support station requires almost Herculean efforts by industry supporters.”

Crist doesn’t claim to be Hercules, but he knows the value of learning the university “system” and pushing for funding.

“You have to find out who the decision makers are, talk to them, and try to find out what they are thinking and what their priorities are,” he says. “Then you have to make your case to them.”

Broad industry backing helps tremendously to get administrators to support fruit research projects, notes Crist. But with the current political and economic situation, he also believes that growers will have to fund some projects on their own. The recently enacted apple grower self-assessment program in New York, with more than $100,000 generated in its first year, is a necessary step. Crist is very supportive of the role the IAI plays. But this wasn’t always the case. Years ago, as a board member of the New York and New England Apple Institute, he was critical of some IAI programs and priorities.

Helped Shift IAI Priorities
As a member of IAI’s “Forward by Plan” task force in the late 1970s, Crist helped develop the plan that led to significant changes in IAI’s structure and priorities. Top priorities — previously apple statistics and public relations/promotion — shifted to industry affairs, a broad category covering issues and government actions that could profoundly affect the apple industry. The changes in IAI were also instrumental in winning the support of the apple industry in Washington state, which previously has not been a full member of IAI. Crist eventually was named to the IAI Board of Trustees. Recalling the days before he was involved with the IAI.

“I guess I raised enough ruckus and wrote enough letters that I ended up on the IAI board,” he says.

He has developed a keen appreciation of the role that a national organization plays. “A state or regional organization is going to promote the apples of its growers, often in competition with other areas,” says Crist.

“A national organization like IAI can deal with very fundamental, broad-based issues like food safety or increasing apple consumption.”

New York Ripe for Change
Emphasizing that both state and national associations play necessary roles, he says that the time may have come to make a fundamental change in the New York’s apple marketing associations. All growers in the state pay the same assessment, but two different organizations promote the state’s apples. Growers in the west belong to the Western New York Apple Growers Association and those in the east belong to the New York-New England Apple Institute.

In the past, Western New York was primarily a processing apple production area, while the Hudson and Champlain Valleys of New York and the New England states were oriented toward wholesaling fresh market apples, mostly McIntosh. But now, the picture has changed. Growers in both eastern and western New York are oriented toward the fresh market. New England growers are gravitating toward farm market or pick-your-own sales, and the failure of some New England states to fully fund the New York-New England Apple Institute is a sore point with many eastern New York growers.

Crist sees strong potential in a unified New York apple association to give more punch to promoting New York apples. Perhaps a central office could be created to handle the bulk of association activities, with two regional offices splitting some duties.

Formed Marketing Group
While Crist is involved in orchard management, his strongest suit is on the packing, storage, and sales end of the business. One of his achievements in this area is the formation of Storm King, a grower-owned marketing corporation. He became convinced that consolidating sales efforts under strong management was a key to profitably marketing apples, and was able to convince other growers of the value of this consolidated approach. Today Storm King apples are sold through another organization, United Apple Sales, which evolved out of Storm King. All the effort that went into getting Storm King off the ground was worth it, says Crist.

“My brother and I were tired of dealing with the truckers coming up out of New York City,” he recalls. “In the long run, having a strong, well-managed organization to handle sales has given us more time to manage other parts of the farm. That’s a real benefit to us.”

Even though his time commitment to organizations and activities has been high, Crist doesn’t look at it as a burden.

“Whatever I have put in, I’ve always gotten more in return,” he says.

Crist Bros. Orchards: Changing With The Times
J. Roscoe Crist is very familiar with an old Alexander Pope quotation: “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” But in today ‘s competitive fruit market, Crist thinks that statement needs to be modified.

“You might not want to be first,” he says, “but you better be real close to it.”

The big bucks, he explains, are made by the growers who were among the first wave to adopt new varieties or new techniques, like controlled atmosphere (CA) storage or waxing. They received a premium price on their fruit. Those who follow later have to adopt the technology to remain competitive, but they miss out on the increased returns.

Crist Brothers Orchards have jumped on many types of new technology early in the game. The list includes CA rooms, heat recovery from refrigeration equipment to heat the packing house, nitrogen generation to pull down CA rooms quickly, computerized grading, waxing, bulk bins, and straddle trailers (still not widely used in the East). At the time American and Western Fruit Grower visited, the bugs were being worked out of two new pieces of equipment: a bagger that filled horizontally (thus avoiding dropping the apples and bruising) and sealed bags by heat, without need of a clip or tie; and an in-line labeler to place a variety identification sticker on each apple — a move that retailers like because it makes it easier for cashiers to ring up the item correctly.

As important as adopting new technology is, development of strong managers and developing the next generation of ownership is even more vital. The Crist brothers used an unusual approach to indoctrinate Roscoe’s nephew, Jeff. Rather than giving him a narrow area of responsibility in the orchard or packinghouse, they put him in charge of a newly purchased orchard. Charges for equipment use, labor, etc. were assigned to that block, and Jeff’s clear mandate was to make it show a profit. The approach worked, as Jeff rose to the challenge.

“After a few years he was doing so well we knew we had to bring him into the main operation,” says an obviously pleased Roscoe.

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