(Sept. 13) Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa., which packs and ships about 1.7 million bushels of apples a year, is in the midst of the largest capital expansion in its history.

John Rice, president and partner, said the company is building a $4.5 million 25,000-square-foot facility that will have a vegetation-covered roof, and it’s installing a $2.5 million high-volume, high-technology packing line.

“We’ve been experiencing significant growth in volumes over the last five years,” Rice said. “This (expansion) is an indication of the growth of the fresh market industry in our area.”

Rice Fruit packs apples only for the fresh market, which is an increasing but still small market in Pennsylvania, Rice said. Apple production in the state is stable, but there is a shift in production of processing varieties to more fresh-market varieties, such as galas, fujis, ginger golds and honeycrisps, he said.

Rice said the company already is planning phase two of its controlled-atmosphere storage project — another addition, which might be built in 2009.

The facility under construction now will add eight controlled-atmosphere storage rooms, providing space for an additional 250,000 bushels of apples, Rice said. The new facility will bring the company’s storage room total to 26, and it will add four loading docks, doubling the current number.

Rice Fruit was in the process of adding refrigeration equipment in mid-August, and Rice said he expects the facility to be operational by October.

The packing line was being installed in mid-August, and Rice said he hoped it would be running by early September. He said he expects it to be at least 50% faster than the line it replaces.

Eighty-five percent of Rice Fruit’s volume is apples, but the line also will be used to pack peaches, nectarines and pears, he said.

GREEN ROOF

The roof of the new building literally will be green. Rice said there is not enough flat land on the property to put in a large storm-water retention pond near the building, so Rice Fruit is instead installing a vegetation-covered roof, or green roof.

The roof consists of a layer of impervious material covered with soil-like material that is designed to stay put. That layer is planted with vegetation. One purpose of a green roof is to absorb rainwater, thus preventing flooding from runoff. The water is gradually filtered through the soil-like layer and released gradually to the ground, Rice said.

“It will help filter the water and restore it back to the ground,” he said.