Pennsylvania Farm Bureau member Leighton Rice is one of 10 semifinalists in the 2022 Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge.
Rice is being 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.
“I got the call a couple weeks ago that I had been selected, so I was really excited,” Rice said. “I think it hit us at the right time, because we have what really seems to be a good product that the industry is receptive to. … I’ve done fairly extensive testing in the field which demonstrates that the tool increases efficiency by 25%, which means 25% more production.”
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.
“It takes a lot of courage to wade into the waters of product development and entrepreneurship in general. At every time, you’re doing a self-analysis and trying to decide if what you have is really innovative enough that the industry will adopt it or that it does offer enough advantages that people are willing to go through the trouble and the expense of taking a chance on it,” said Rice, who also noted that the device is protected by a provisional patent application and that he’s aiming to position himself to generate sales for the 2022 harvest season.
The Ag Innovation Challenge provides Farm Bureau members an opportunity to showcase ideas and business innovations in agriculture. The 10 semifinalists are each awarded $10,000 and will compete at the AFBF Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. Four finalists will advance to the final round and receive an additional $5,000. Those final four teams will compete live in front of Farm Bureau members, investors and industry representatives on Sunday, Jan. 9, to win three top titles and prizes:
- Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge winner, for a total of $50,000
- Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge runner-up, for a total of $20,000
All 10 semifinalist teams will also compete for the People’s Choice Team, which will be selected by public vote, for an additional $5,000.
Prior to the AFBF Convention, the 10 semifinalists will participate in pitch training and mentorship from Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business faculty. The semifinalists will also have the opportunity to network with industry leaders and venture capital representatives from the Agriculture Department’s Rural Business Investment Companies.
For more information about the Ag Innovation Challenge and to meet the other semifinalists visit fb.org/challenge.