Viscul / Fork & Lens
Rice Fruit Company,
VP of Sales & Marketing
Quote from Brenda Briggs
“I know when I talk to our buyers, our produce buyers who do business with us, they have that same wonderful feeling about our employees being from the area, our stores are from here, our growers are our partners, they’re not just a supplier”
Jessica Hughes: 00:00 Hey, everyone. This is Jess with Fork and Lens. I am very excited to introduce today’s guest. Today we have Brenda Briggs from Rice Fruit Company in Gardners, Pennsylvania with us. She serves as the Vice President of Sales and Marketing, and also serves on the Board of Directors for the U.S. Apple Association. Brenda received her bachelor’s from Dickinson College, followed by her MBA from Mount St. Mary’s University.
She’s experienced and passionate about bringing local Eastern grown premium apples to market. Sourcing locally grown fruit brings fresh produce to consumers, supports the local economy and reduces the carbon footprint of food travel. Brenda works diligently to educate and connect consumers with the value of the agriculture industry. A better understanding of where your food comes from promotes support of orchardists and farmers who help feed the community.
Rice Fruit Company’s sweet natured premium apples have been a leading competitor in the apple industry for more than a 100 years. Thank you so much for joining us, Brenda.
Welcome to the Fork and Lens Podcast brought to you by Viscul.
Ooh, smells delish.
Agriculture has many qualities that can be impacted by you at Rice or by the growers on the farms, but then there’s also qualities that are completely out of your control. They’re out of all of our control. Weather, climate, all those different things, frost even, because we dealt with that a little bit this spring. So tell me about kind of how Rice goes about controlling quality when you can’t control all of the quality pieces, through the growing process, as well as packaging and all those different things?
Brenda Briggs: 01:52 Sure. There are so many things that can happen in nature that impact our quality, the quality of the fruit that our growers are growing. We can’t do anything about that, but we have a very experienced person who’s our growers service representative. And he works with our growers throughout the year, keeping up with their growing practices, the varieties they’re planting. But when it comes to go time at harvest, he is out there bringing in small samples from different lots of fruit so that we can test its internal qualities for whether the sugars are developing or whether we need to wait a few more days until it comes in.
So the first step is making sure we’re really close to that optimum time for the growers to harvest and then we bring it in. We store in great big refrigerators called controlled atmosphere rooms. In those rooms, we seal away the fruit, we bring the oxygen levels down and it kind of puts them to sleep. So they still respirate and they’re still a living, breathing item, but they go to sleep. And it keeps them almost at the same quality and we can market them over the next six to nine months.
Then on our packing line, we have very advanced technology. We have equipment technology and computers that take pictures of the outside of the apple. It weighs it and looks at the shape. So in a particular box of fruit, all the apples are going to be the same size. It also can do a reflection into the internal part of the apple to look and see if there’s any internal defects. If water got inside and it’s starting to decay, or if there’s some browning or something that happens, because it’s a perishable product. We’re able to sort all those things out and put the best apples into the boxes.
Jessica Hughes: 03:45 And this is something that you and I had talked about before, but the relationship of the liaison from Rice to the growers, what does that look like? And how does marketing kind of play into that as well? Because that’s a huge benefit to what Rice does.
Brenda Briggs: 04:02 Sure. So Rice Fruit Company has been around for over a hundred years and Rice Fruit Company is the storing and marketing and packing end of the apple business, but the Rice family also has orchards. And then we market for about 30 other growers in our local area, as well as some from New York and Maryland. So there’s a very integral relationship between our team and our individual growers. They have their own family businesses, they’re completely independent, but they rely upon us for advice on what to plant and to market their fruit profitably for them. Many of them we’ve been dealing with for generations, their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers brought their fruit to our company and over the years. So there’s just that long rich heritage. Our grower services representative, this is his 51st harvest. So he was an apple grower. He had his own packing house years ago, and now he works for us.
He was my first mentor in the industry a couple of decades ago.
Jessica Hughes: 05:15 How cool is that?
Brenda Briggs: 05:17 It’s so cool. And when he came to work with us, he’s such a wonderful mentor. He takes us out into the orchard. So I’m out in the orchards a fair amount with him talking to our growers and I’m head of our marketing department. So it’s a really great time for me to talk to them, for them to ask me questions. They trust us. They trust us to do the very best job we can for them. It’s not just a job for growers. It’s a way of life and something that… They take care of an apple. It takes literally a year for that tree to go to sleep and develop the flowers that get pollinated, and then the apples that grow into those wonderful tasting pieces of fruit that we harvest in the fall. So there’s a very close relationship between our growers and our team.
Jessica Hughes: 06:05 So how does that play into your marketing efforts then?
Brenda Briggs: 06:08 Oh, it’s an integral part of it. And under these times, during this COVID pandemic that we’re living in, it seems like it’s even more highlighted. People seem even more interested in knowing about local farmers and supporting local businesses and having fresh local fruit. Our local retailers are fantastic. Most of them have that have stores here in this area of Pennsylvania also have stores across the Mid-Atlantic and maybe even a little farther out into New England or further south. And they’re so supportive of our company and our growers.
We’re usually one of the first regions to come to market each fall because we’re a little bit farther south than New York or Michigan, even Washington state. So we have first to market Honeycrisp and gala and all the popular varieties people are looking for. And they’re just fantastic. They will advertise them in their flyers. They’ll put pictures up of our growers and it’s just a real… The fall comes and people have that old feeling of storing up for the winter. And there’s just some really nice feelings of childhood coming back of harvest and apples and apple cider. And so it’s just a really nice relationship to have the support of local retailers.
Jessica Hughes: 07:40 Well, and I think that’s interesting because I agree with you. I think local is kind of becoming local 2.0 right now. We were on a local trend and I think it’s becoming hyperlocal now. And Rice does such a good job of working within its region and not trying to necessarily work outside of that region. And while you, yes, supply people up into New England and down into southern states, it’s not like you’re trying to push things out West or to the South, like towards Texas or anything like that.
But I think it’s kind of neat because you’re supporting local by doing what you do and bringing those spaces to the forefront. But you’re also really trying to stay true to the product and the freshness of that product as well. And the flavor makes all the difference. I mean, I grew up in apple country. I know. When you started talking about Honeycrisp, I’m like, “Ooh, I have a craving now.” But tell me a little bit more about how you manage to keep things local and then also what that local movement means to the growers as you kind of market that local focus. How does that kick back to the growers as well?
Brenda Briggs: 09:00 There’s such a nice connection locally with… When we’re packing apples, we’re buying boxes from our local box manufacturer, we’re buying poly bags from local companies. The trucking companies that we use are often family-owned businesses very close to us. So there’s so much connection between the ag industry supporting all of these related companies and all the people who are employed by them. And then there’s such a nice story being told either at a farm market or at a grocery store. You can go to a local farm market and find the… and also find those same apples at a local grocery store. And so it’s just a nice feeling for consumers. They’re getting a local product that hasn’t had a lot of food miles on it. It’s fresh, it tastes great. We do a really nice job growing fruit and packing it. It’s a consistent…
I mean, our customers know that we can pack a box of apples and have it on a truck by the end of the day and at their dock within a few hours. So there’s just that great service and turnaround. And then people going into the store like myself or our growers when they go in and they see their fruit, there’s just something so rewarding about that. And I know when I talk to our buyers, our produce buyers who do business with us, they have that same wonderful feeling about our employees are from the area, our stores are from here. Our growers are our partners. They’re not just a supplier. And so there’s all of that kind of emotion of supporting the people that you live with and who make up your community.
Jessica Hughes: 10:49 Well, and I think that’s kind of key is just the pride that people take in their work and those local relationships. It really is a community and it’s recognized as a community. It’s always interesting for me to watch because I’m not necessarily part of it, but I’m very close to it. And the sense of how everyone helps out one another and makes sure that everyone’s getting the benefit of it as well. Whether it’s the grocery store, or the trucking company, or the packaging company, in the sense of the people who are producing the packaging, or the distributor like yourself, who is packaging the apples, literally, in a bag, or any other fruit for that matter. It’s a community feel. And when you’re in those areas and those pockets, you feel that community sense, whether you’re talking to someone or you’re at the farmer’s market, there’s just kind of this mutual comradery and respect for the hard work that everyone puts into it.
Brenda Briggs: 11:54 That’s very much the case. Yeah. Very much.
Jessica Hughes: 11:59 Okay. So let’s go back to what you were telling me about how everything gets brought into Rice, and then they go into these big refrigerated rooms that are temperature controlled. And how do you kind of go about your quality assurance process then to make sure that everything is packaged and status quo to send it out?
Brenda Briggs: 12:22 We start with our process of working with the growers at harvest to determine the timing. And then as the fruit’s coming in, some fruit is just perfect for being marketed as it’s harvested, but three or four months down the road, maybe the maturity wouldn’t be quite right. So we categorize it as to what needs to be marketed soon. And then some fruit might just need a little bit of time in storage to develop those sugars and they will continue to develop flavor in storage. So we’ll separate it that way.
And then we have a pre sizing room, which looks like a great big swimming pool, and it has all of the equipment that our packing lines have. So it will look at the outside of the apple by taking 30 or 40 pictures, so it determines its color and looks for any defects. It will weigh it to determine its size. And then it goes down a flume and put back into the harvest bins. So then all the fruit in that particular bin is about the same size, same color.
And then it will go to the packing line and we’ll have another sorting both by humans, the people who work on our packing line, and the equipment. It will look at the internals of the fruit, so we can tell what the pressures are. We want it to have that nice crunch and that splash of juice that is so satisfying when you eat an apple.
Jessica Hughes: 12:22 It is.
Brenda Briggs: 13:45 So our technology… Yeah, but it’s kind of crazy. People will come in and have a tour and you just have no idea the kind of technology that goes into bringing each one of those apples to market. And then it’s packed and palletized and coded so that we can trace every box of fruit back to the farm lot. So there’s traceability there. It’s palletized, kept in storage, and then it’s loaded on refrigerated trucks. And sealed when it’s finished being loaded. And then it goes off to market, whether it’s to a local retailer or to a wholesaler that will then resell it. And that’s how we do it.
Jessica Hughes: 14:28 Okay. So this is blowing my mind. I never realized the amount of technology, especially in that pool of the photography and the sorting that happens. And it’s all computerized, which is crazy to me. I have to ask how big is the swimming pool of apples?
Brenda Briggs: 14:51 I think it has 18 lanes.
Jessica Hughes: 14:53 Wow.
Brenda Briggs: 14:54 18 lanes.
Jessica Hughes: 14:58 That is huge.
Brenda Briggs: 14:58 Yes.
Jessica Hughes: 14:58 Very interesting. [crosstalk 00:14:59].
Brenda Briggs: 14:58 So it comes across a line and it’ll go through the equipment that takes the pictures of the fruit. And then as it comes to each one of those lanes, it’s programmed, whether it’s going to be a piece of fruit that goes into a bag, or whether it’s going to go off to a local juice maker or a cider company, because it doesn’t have that shiny, fresh fruit to it but it has wonderful flavor and makes great cider. Or it might be a larger apple that we will then put a sticker on and it’ll be sold as a loose piece of fruit or a bulk fruit. And each lane will gather the apples. And when we know there’s enough apples in that lane to fill a bin, it’s gently filled back into a bin.
Jessica Hughes: 15:40 Wow. That’s so cool. And I think the neat part about that is you’re really guaranteeing, A, the freshest ingredient for the consumer, but also the fact that the fruit that may not be of standard for that purpose isn’t going to waste. Instead, it’s going to the juice maker or the cider maker or whatever it is. And actually it reminds me a lot, I was talking to [Ben Wang 00:16:07] from Three Springs Farm and he was telling me how… and I’ll mark this in the show notes. But during his interview, he was talking about how he takes the cider that doesn’t sell at market. And then he brings it back and makes the hard cider for Ploughman Cider out of it.
And it just becomes this forgiving effect of the age of food product and being able to turn it into something else. Like I know, and this is a very simple example, but like when my bananas start going bad, I freeze them. And when I have enough, I make banana bread.
Brenda Briggs: 16:38 Me, too. Sure.
Jessica Hughes: 16:40 Right. So it’s just that thought process of repurposing, reusing, and making sure that we’re looking at the amount of waste that we’re producing and trying to scale that back as much as possible. So it’s really interesting. And it’s neat that you have technology that just kind of does all of that for you.
Brenda Briggs: 16:59 It helps us do all of that. Yeah. And then we have to find a market for every piece of fruit whether it’s a second grade or it’s going to be made into applesauce or cider. Whatever it is, there’s a market for it, and we know how to get it to where it needs to go.
Jessica Hughes: 17:18 So, okay. We’re talking a lot about apples, but I also know that Rice does more than apples. You do a lot of stone fruit as well, correct?
Brenda Briggs: 17:26 We have done stone fruit for all of our history, but this year is the first year that we won’t be packing stone fruit.
Jessica Hughes: 17:37 Wow. So you’re just doing apples now.
Brenda Briggs: 17:39 We are just doing apples now. there’s still a nice base of stone fruit in the county, but for us, Honeycrisp and gala have become such a phenomenon that those two seasons sort of collide for us. Our stone fruit for our area is sort of late July through September and the early Honeycrisp start in the second week of August. And so over time, it’s just become a little more difficult for us to manage the two, so we’re going to concentrate on apples now. And some of the other packers in the area are going to keep doing peaches, so they’ll still be a great supply. I mean, they’re one of my favorite things in the whole world to eat. We just grow the best peaches. There’s something about having a local peach that can be harvested tree ripe, and it’s just incredible. You just can’t ship a peach across the country and have the same kind of flavor. So, it’s still a really important piece of fruit, but we’re concentrating on apples now.
Jessica Hughes: 18:48 Well, and it’s interesting because what I was going to ask you was how do those swimming lanes work with peaches-
Brenda Briggs: 18:55 They don’t.
Jessica Hughes: 18:57 So that’s the efficiencies that you’ve set up?
Brenda Briggs: 19:01 Yes. Well, we’ve had the pre-sizer for apples forever. And we were the first, probably. We had a pre-sizer probably a couple of decades before other East Coast packers did, but it’s just an integral part of how we run our business. But peaches would sink. They don’t float like apples. [crosstalk 00:19:25].
Jessica Hughes: 19:21 They bruise.
Brenda Briggs: 19:21 So we’d have to change… There’s that too. But the grocery store business has changed in terms of stone fruit and apples. It used to be, 10, 20 years ago probably that there weren’t early apples. And so peaches were a much more prevalent item in grocery stores, at least through September when things like reds and golds started coming in. And now we have these August apples that are taking over the world. And they have taken up our line time. It’s a transition.
Jessica Hughes: 20:01 It is a transition.
Brenda Briggs: 20:02 It is.
Jessica Hughes: 20:03 Wow. So we’ve talked about the big swimming pool of apples. We’ve talked about how it all gets packaged and sent of the store. Is there anything else that you want to add?
Brenda Briggs: 20:16 I was say the other thing that I would add is something that no one really sees, but it’s such an important part of what we do. And that is food safety. Food safety has always been ingrained in what we do, but about 10 years ago have it became a regimented requirement to have a third party auditor come in and do formal inspections, and sometimes those inspections last a couple of days. We do independent audit, as well as a USDA audit, in our facilities, but we also have a food safety director on-site.
And she not only manages our food safety program at Rice Fruit Company, but she also works with each and every one of our growers. They all do food safety audits at their orchards. And she schedules those and helps with the training and the updates and all the things. It’s just an ever changing environment. And every August and September, she helps schedule their audits and works with the auditor that comes on site. And it’s just an added service to growers because what they do best is being out in the orchards and caring for their trees and suddenly there’s the more bureaucratic things that come into play, but really important. And so there’s that as well.
Jessica Hughes: 21:40 So how does she communicate the food safety guidelines to the growers and how much impact does that have on how the growers go about, A, trees, but also just harvesting the fruit off the trees?
Brenda Briggs: 21:54 She has a big impact because she’s incredibly dynamic and she loves what she does. So she will put together binders for them that are all color coordinated and in the same order for each grower. So when she goes to meet with them, it helps her system work better. We have springtime meetings where she gives updates about nuances or changes in laws and regulations, and she’s just always at their disposal.
So she will go out to the farms and work with them. She’ll have in-office meetings with them, and we do training sessions. So it just gives them… I mean, they’re the professionals. They’re very good at what they do and they have a great sense of what needs to be done. But I think for them, because they’re so busy taking care of so many things, it’s reassuring to have us providing that kind of support, particularly the person that we have. She’s just so organized and good at what she does. So they know that they have somebody that’s there to answer any questions or to talk through what’s the best way to do this or that. And I just think it provides a really nice support.
Jessica Hughes: 23:08 Well, and it sounds like Rice has really become a pillar of support for the local growing community in the sense of providing marketing and distribution and food safety and all those different things that really allows them to do what they’re good at, which is being out in the fields, just like you said. And I think that just goes back to that whole community local feel of, “Let’s all do our part to make sure that as a community, we have our well-being, our income, and also providing the best product to the people who are purchasing it.”
Brenda Briggs: 23:44 Absolutely. The growers to what they do really well. It’s not my expertise, but I know I can rely upon them to do the best job that they can possibly do under the weather conditions that present themselves. And over the years it’s been pretty fantastic. So at the same time, if we have somebody that can provide them with the support that they need, then it’s a perfect marriage to do those different things.
Jessica Hughes: 24:12 I mean, it’s just nice that they have a partner that they can go to and say, “Hey, I’m experiencing this. Is anyone else? Or do you have any insight?” Or all those different things. It almost becomes like you’re their own personal professional development and services.
Brenda Briggs: 24:32 And now that you mention that, there’s another component that exists in Adams County, that is another group of professionals that provide support both to Rice Fruit Company and the growers. And that is the Penn State Fruit Research Lab in Biglerville. And a lot of the scientists, they live in the community and they do their research on things that we say to them, “We need help figuring out this, this keeps presenting itself. And how do we get better color on an apple in August when it’s really hot? What does the tree canopy need to look like? What other kinds of tools are available?” That’s just one example. Or the growers might see something that’s happening in the orchards and they’ll talk to us and together we’ll work together. And the researchers are such great partners to help us with storage techniques or growing techniques, whatever it is. It’s just another part. I guess the other part of that triangle being the growers, our marketing group, and then our researchers. The really great job that they do to help us.
Jessica Hughes: 25:37 It just goes to show it takes a village.
Brenda Briggs: 25:40 It’s true. It’s true.
Jessica Hughes: 25:42 It really is. Well, thank you so much, Brenda. I appreciate you joining me today.
Brenda Briggs: 25:48 Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you shining a light on the local industry. Because sometimes I wonder if people who are not connected to agriculture, if they recognize that there is such a big industry here in Pennsylvania and that often the apples they’re buying are from Pennsylvania and that they should look for them so that they are supporting the local industry. There’s just some fantastic, every kind of flavor and variety available, and supporting the local community is just an added benefit on top of having something great to eat.
Jessica Hughes: 26:24 Well, and you’re supporting not just the growers, but the packaging company and the people that work there, and the trucking company and the people driving, and all of these different components and they all come together and work together. So it’s very important.
Brenda Briggs: 26:36 Yes, it is.
Jessica Hughes: 26:38 All right.
Brenda Briggs: 26:39 Thank you.
Jessica Hughes: 26:39 You’re welcome.
You can find Brenda on LinkedIn. Rice Fruit Company can also be found on LinkedIn, as well as Instagram, and at ricefruit.com. Every snack is better shared, just like apples are. Feel free to share Fork and Lens with your team, colleagues, and friends. If you enjoyed today’s message, please subscribe to get weekly access to new recipes for creative and marketing success. Also feel free to leave a review in the footnotes. You can also check us out at forkandlens.co or viscul.co. Until next time.