Basket Manufacturer Hopes for Mild WinterFeb 01, 2017 06:24PM ● By Makayla Gay
By John McCurry
Photography ©2016 Brian Dressler / dresslerphoto.com
Terry Roof and his extended family keep their fingers crossed every year in hopes of a good peach crop. That often depends on weather and the hope is always to avoid a late freeze. No one wants a repeat of the winter of 1955 when there was a legendary late freeze in March that virtually wiped out South Carolina’s peach crop. Fortunately, this kind of agricultural disaster is rare.
The Roof family isn’t in the peach business, but the company they run in Lexington, Roof Basket Works, supplies a key product to peach growers: the familiar peach basket. 2016 was an average year for the company and Terry Roof, the company’s president, is optimistic about 2017. Although the company makes baskets for a variety of purposes, about 60 percent of the baskets it makes wind up full of peaches.
“We never know how good of a year we will have until the peach crop comes in,” he explains.
Adds Tony Roof, Terry’s nephew and the company’s secretary and treasurer, “We’re always hoping for a full crop.”
Terry Roof and many members of his family have spent their entire careers making baskets. “When I was born, my parents put me in a basket,” Roof jokes. “When I outgrew it, they put me in a bigger one. This is all I’ve ever done."
Richard Roof, Terry’s brother and Tony’s dad, is the company’s vice president and still active in the manufacturing process at the age of 83.
Roof Basket Works observed its 70th anniversary last year. Little has changed in its manufacturing process during that time. It all begins with South Carolina-grown poplar trees. Timber companies deliver an average of 1.5 million board feet of poplar logs to the factory every year. The company uses poplar wood for its pliability. Terry Roof describes poplar wood as having a “true grain,” making it easy to assess the quality of the wood.
After the wood arrives, the first step is debarking and inspection. Then comes the slicing of the logs, known as veneering. The veneer is cut into strips to bend and shape into the familiar peach baskets that are found at fruit stands everywhere during the summer. It’s largely a handcrafted business, with some old equipment used to make certain types of baskets.
While the standard half-bushel basket is the dominant product, the company makes a variety of sizes. In all, about 5,000 are made each day in about 60 different sizes.
After the baskets are made, they are placed in a drier. The 195-degree temperature takes out the remaining moisture in the wood. That helps reduce the risk of mildew forming in the baskets. That’s the last manufacturing step before they are loaded into trucks. Box trucks can carry exactly 3,168 baskets, stacked neatly, while a tractor-trailer can haul 7,700. During the off-season for peaches, the baskets are stored at a warehouse in Leesville. Most peach orchards in the South use baskets made by Roof Basket Works, but the company’s overall market covers much of the U.S. and Canada.
The process is labor-intensive and is far from high-tech. However, particular skills are required, and employees usually take about three months to master the craft. Employment at
Roof Basket Works ranges from 45 to 50. Peak demand for baskets mirrors the peach production season and runs from June to September.
Vintage is perhaps the best word to describe much of the company’s equipment. One machine, used to produce round baskets, is more than 100 years old.
The basket-making process results in a substantial amount of scrap wood, but none of it is wasted. It is ground up and sent to a biomass plant to generate electricity.
After the peach industry, the biggest users of Roof baskets are greenhouses, followed by the craft industry. The design of the classic half-bushel basket, the company’s primary product, hasn’t changed in more than 70 years. That basket costs a little less than $2, according to Tony Roof, who notes that the company is always looking for new types of baskets to make. Other baskets the company makes include hexagonal baskets, specialty baskets such as those used to hold wine bottles, and picnic baskets.
Besides the long tradition of the baskets, they are durable and weatherproof, and the openings allow the fruit to breathe. While the manufacturing process is decidedly low-tech, Terry Roof believes the old-fashioned peach baskets the company makes will always have a place.