ATLANTA — Pennsylvania Farm Bureau (PFB) member Leighton Rice made it to the Final Four in the 2022 Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge during the 103rd American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Annual Convention, which was held Jan. 7-11 in Atlanta, Ga.
Rice was recognized for his StemPunk device, “a dual-dexterous, hands-free stem clipper” that helps apple pickers “trim stems efficiently and safely for the modern market,” according to the StemPunk website. Rice has been working in the apple industry for 15 years in his family’s business, Rice Fruit Company, and worked with Chris Toner from Team Design Group to create a solution for stem punctures.
“It’s good recognition,” said Toner. “Especially up against peers and a lot of competition. It’s really good to be picked out, especially among high-tech stuff, when this [device] is a good, simple, straightforward tool.”
“It’s great to see Pennsylvania farmers like Leighton be recognized for their innovation at the national level,” said PFB President Rick Ebert. “Farmers have to be many things, including entrepreneurs and inventors, and we congratulate Leighton on his accomplishment.”
The final four teams were selected from 10 semi-finalist business owners who presented to a panel of four industry judges. Each of the 10 semi-finalist teams was awarded $10,000; the final four teams were awarded a total of $15,000 each. Rice said the prize money will help tweak their product and have it ready for next season.
“Really anything helps us. We’re just getting started; we’re not funded, we’re self-funded,” said Rice.
After five years of development, Rice says the money will “keep the ship moving.”
Rice said he and Toner have been building the devices in their basement, and last year sent 100 units out for testing. The next step for StemPunk will be finding someone to handle assembly on a larger scale.
“It’s not a complicated assembly, so finding a Pennsylvania-based partner is what we would prefer,” said Rice.
Stem punctures occur when apple stems cause damage to other apples when they are comingling in picking bags or bulk bins and on packing lines. A punctured apple becomes unclassified by USDA standards and must be sold as juice. StemPunk provides pickers an alternative to hand clippers to more efficiently trim stems.
“This was great, good competition,” said Toner. “We really appreciate Farm Bureau doing stuff like this.”
The Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge, now in its eighth year, provides opportunities for Farm Bureau
members to showcase business innovations being developed for agriculture.
–Pennsylvania Farm Bureau