As a grower and shipper of organic fresh market apples in Santa Cruz County’s Pajaro Valley, Bruce Rider & Sons is currently a rarity. Pressured by the apple industry’s shifting economics of scale, many of the valley’s formerly abundant orchards have given way to berry fields; others now supply apples only for juicing and processing. Jim Rider grows seventy-five acres of Mcintosh, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Braeburn, Fuji, and other varieties well suited to the local climate, while his brother Dick runs the company’s packing operation, handling some seventy-five percent of the organic apples in California.
A fifth-generation orchardist and experienced horticulturalist, Jim Rider enjoys a reputation as a savvy, innovative grower. He is an adept and enthusiastic grafter, and has made strategic selections to produce a succession of varieties that ripen on the Central Coast when customers in other climates crave them. He saves on labor and equipment by growing on rootstock that yields smaller trees and by keeping the orchards pruned to a maximum of seven or eight feet tall, averting the need for ladders during pruning, thinning, harvesting, and other operations.
Accustomed to making frequent proactive adjustments to ever-changing market and environmental conditions, Rider converted all of his orchards to organic production in the wake of the public awareness over the spraying of Alar on apples in 1989. Rider collaborated with UCSC entomologist Sean Swezey in ten years of organic field research trials; together they pioneered a pheromone-based mating-disruption system to control codling moth infestation. He has also experimented with hedgerows as a method of enhancing biological pest control.
In this interview, conducted by Sarah Rabkin on March 6, 2008, at Jim Rider’s Watsonville office, he discussed apple production in the Pajaro Valley, his conversion to organic production, the changing markets for organic apples, his orchard management techniques, the flower business he and his wife ran until recently, and other aspects of his operation.