Hay there!

This time of year always brings back memories of baling hay when I was a kid. I only have to smell the aroma of freshly cut hay, and I immediately go back to those hot summer days in my youth when hay season meant hot weather and hard work. And the camaraderie of neighbors and relatives all pitching in (pun intended) to get the job done.

Back before my time, hay wasn’t baled, it was pitched. With a pitch fork. The kind you see in old farmer pictures. The hay was loose and a fork was the only way to handle it. You “pitched” it out of the field and onto the wagon with your fork. Sort of like spaghetti, but more slippery. And then you pulled the wagon into the barn and pitched it into the loft. just a big pile of loose hay for your animal’s feed. It was a lot of work.

Ike Korhorn, Grandpa Moelker, neil, John, Gerrit, Eliabeth , John

Then the baler was invented and it packed the hay into tight bales and tied them up with twine. Much more efficient, but the heavy bales had to be loaded from the field onto a wagon. The guys on the wagon had a big job. Not only did they have to stack the hay up ten to twelve feet high, but they had to do it in such a way that the load would stay together and not tip over or fall off. Keep in mind that a hay bay weighs anywhere from 50-90 pounds! We kids had all we could do to get the bales up onto the wagon at chest height. The guys on the wagon had to throw them up onto the stack above their heads! I can still remember riding on top of a wagon load as a kid. The view from up there was great! Until the load shifted as we went around a corner and the whole thing tumbled off the side of the wagon! Nobody was hurt, but we had to load it all up again. I think I learned some words I hadn’t heard before.

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Haying time was always hot. Or so it seemed. But you couldn’t wear shorts and a t-shirt because hay is..well..hay. It’s prickly and scratchy and it sticks to you when you sweat. Which is always, when you are haying. Getting it loaded onto the wagon was only half the job. Because it still had to be stacked up in the barn. Which means the whole process would be repeated in unloading the wagon into the barn. We tried to load and unload the wagons in the cool of the morning or evening. But more often than not, it seems we wound up haying in the heat of the day.

I write all of this in past tense, because I don’t do hay anymore. But plenty of farmers still do. And while many now bale in big round bales that are handled with a tractor and don’t have to be touched by a human hand at all, I still see plenty of small square bales being made. And I don’t envy those who are out there loading wagons on hot summer days. But in all of the hard work there was still the fun of working with friends. A cold glass of lemonade never tasted so good! And the good feeling of accomplishment when a field was mowed flat and empty of its bales. I’m happy to have done it, But I’m also happy that I don’t do it anymore!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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Apples are measuring up!

So the bloom is finished, and the bees have moved on to their next jobs on other farms. The apples are growing larger every day. But if all the blossoms on an apple tree turn into apples, the tree would never be able to support them all! And the resulting crop would look like bushels and bushels of little red golf balls!

Some of the blossoms, however did not get pollinated. So those will not turn into apples. Some may have winter or spring cold weather damage and will not develop. And sometimes the tree, knowing how many apples it is carrying by sensing the volume of a hormone produced by each apple seed, will abort some of the apples in order to survive. (See my prior blog on Gibberellins). If left alone, apple trees will often have a big crop one year and a small or no crop the next. We growers realize that in order to have a decent crop year after year, we have to try to smooth out that cycle to have a moderate crop every year.

There is a short window of opportunity after bloom in which we can help the tree cast off some of it’s fruit if it is carrying too much. But at that point, we still don’t know just which fruits are going to continue and which will stop and fall off. That’s where apple measuring comes into play. For several years now, my daughters, Tressa and Taylor, have taken on the task of measuring fruitlets every three days over this period. First they mark 75 fruits on each of 5 trees in each orchard that we are tracking.

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Blue ribbons mark each cluster of apples.
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Each cluster is numbered, and each apple as well

Then they measure each fruit with a digital calipers and record the data.

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It is a time consuming task, repeated every 3 days in each variety that we want data on.

The data is entered into an Excel spreadsheet program. After 3 or 4 sets of data have been entered, we can crunch the numbers and the program will tell us which fruits are growing and which are slowing down and are going to eventually stop. This is a huge help to us in determining the eventual size of the coming crop, and with this information we can decide whether to leave the tree alone or to “help” it to cast off some of it’s fruit. We can do that by applying some products that stress the tree slightly so that it will decide it can’t carry quite so much. The tree will then kick some more fruit off and help regulate the crop.

The process isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are many other factors involved; tree health, weather, and previous year’s crop all play a role in the big picture of crop size and the response that we may get when we try to”help” the trees. But the many hours of work and thousands of measurements that these girls take are an invaluable resource for us, making a difficult decision making process more precise. Hats off to them!!

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My measuring crew, Tressa and Taylor!

Just another example of how technology and hard work are changing farming for the better!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker    tompic

What’s Growing On?

Well our growing season has finally caught up. Back in the middle of April, we were running in between 3 and 4 weeks behind normal in accumulated temperature degree days. Since then we have slowly been gaining and our trees have been catching up in development due to some warmer than normal weeks. And by this weekend, we will have recovered all the way back to where we should be on average. This means the tree growth stages are now right where they usually are this time of year. Funny how all our fretting about early springs or late springs really doesn’t change anything. On the 1st of February we were 19 days ahead of normal. Then came the cold March and April that swung us the other way. And here we are now, right on time.

So what does right on time look like? Here are some photos of each kind of fruit, taken today.

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Sweet Cherry
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Apple

 

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Pear
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Peach
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Plum

Grafting update

Two weeks ago I wrote about grafting apple trees to change them from one variety to another. Since that was done, the little apple wood buds have woken up and are beginning to grow. That means the grafting process was successful! We don’t expect that every single one will succeed, but it’s good to see progress! Once these little shoots grow to 6 inches or so, we will remove about a third of the original tree so more of it’s resources can go to the new “adopted” branch. If this first season is successful, next spring we will remove all the rest of the original tree and the grafted shoot will become the new tree.

 

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The new shoot is starting!

It is always amazing to me to see how things grow. God makes trees to grow and produce fruit, and season after season, barring frost or other natural disasters, they will expend all their energy doing so. It’s what they were created to do. We should all take a lesson from them.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker       tompic

Grafting

So a while back in my blog I mentioned that we would be doing some grafting, changing some apple trees from one variety to another. We did this task on this past Tuesday. In this blog, I’ll show you how this type of grafting works!

The process actually began back in February when we collected dormant shoots from our then-sleeping trees. This wood must be kept dormant, so we store it in refrigeration until it’s time to graft.  The shoots are then trimmed into little sticks, called “scions”, about 3-4 inches long with two buds on each stick.

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Trimming the “scions”

The scions are then trimmed on one end to expose the different layers of the wood from the outer bark down to the inner wood. They are kind of paired down on two sides to form a wedge.

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Then a cut is made into the trunk of the host tree with a sharp grafting knife. These knives are extremely sharp and sturdy.  The cut that is made is very precise and designed to accept the scion stick with it’s trimmed end. The scion is inserted into the cut, lined up so that the bark tissues are together, and pressed tight.

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The grafted area is then wrapped tight with tape or elastic plastic to keep the tissues secure and in place. Then the area is painted with a wax based product that seals the cuts up . This will keep disease and insects out while keeping the tree tissue clean and the moisture in.

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During this work the scions and the trunk cuts cannot be allowed to dry out at all, so time is of the essence. The professionals that did this work for us can perform the whole process in a matter of seconds! Each person on the crew has a specific job to do, and it is replicated thousands of times in a day. At our farm on Tuesday, they grafted 1,250 trees in just a few hours! Then on to the next farm.

Here I’ve linked a short video of Robbi VanTimmeren, who leads this dedicated grafting crew, performing a graft on one of our trees. Even though she slowed it down some for us, it goes quickly so you may have to watch it more than once! Notice that every action is performed with exacting precision. She makes a difficult task look much easier than it really is.

In the weeks ahead I’ll keep you posted on the progress these trees are making. The goal is that hopefully that little scion that we put in place this week will eventually take over and become the new tree, changing these trees from Red Delicious over to Honeycrisp! In the meantime…

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

Finally…!

Sunday was a beautiful day. Warm and sunny and just right for taking a walk. In church that morning we sang the song “This is my Father’s World.” It fit the day perfectly. Hard to imagine us singing that a week earlier when everything was canceled due to a snow storm! It just wouldn’t have felt right.

So only a week ago we were walking around in fresh snow. Now the snow is gone, and the fruit buds are beginning to pop! We are seeing the first green leaves just poking out of the apple buds just in the last couple of days. Each of these tiny buds holds the flowers that could develop into 5 apples. And with the warmer weather, I guess they decided it’s time to emerge. It is amazing how those little buds can sit there wrapped up tight all winter, and then with a few warm days flip the switch and poke their little leaves out into the sun. How do they know?

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We are about two weeks behind average  right now, but we will begin to catch up quickly with the warm temperatures forecast for next week. Just in the last week we have gone from 20 days behind to 14 days behind normal!  We are busy pruning cherries and peaches now. Most years we wait to prune them until they begin to grow in the spring. Since they are more tender and sensitive to cold winter temperatures, we want to see which branches and buds are growing and which are not. It is easier to see and remove branches with winter damage that way. We will soon be planting trees as well when the soil is dry enough. When the weather warms up, it seems our “to do” list grows quickly too!

But even though we are really busy, all this week that song has been running through my head. So I’ll put a couple of verses here, and just maybe you will see what I have been seeing all week. In spite of all the work on the farm, Spring is amazing!

This is my Father’s world
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres
This is my Father’s world
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas
His hand the wonders wrought
This is my Father’s world
The birds their carols raise
The morning light, the lily white
Declare their maker’s praise
This is my Father’s world
He shines in all that’s fair
In the rustling grass, I hear Him pass
He speaks to me everywhere
Have a fruitful week!
Tom Moelker

Planning to plan…

Well I guess we don’t have to worry about spring coming early this year! We may have to worry about it coming at all?! I was at a grower meeting this morning where we talked about the weather. Farmers do that. It was pointed out that as of February 1 our temperature accumulations were about 19 days ahead of normal. And now, six weeks later temps are running 19 days behind normal. That’s a 38 day swing! How do we make plans when things can change so drastically? Answer? Relax and roll with it. We can’t change the weather, no matter how much we worry about it!

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Sometimes no matter how much we plan, things don’t turn out the way we think they are going to. Travis and I spent much of the last 2 days preparing 1,200+ young trees for grafting in a few weeks. These trees were planted in 2015, and have not grown as well as we expected. They had a hot ride from the nursery on the west coast back when we received them, and much of the wood had heat stress damage. We planted them, knowing that they might not perform as well as we hoped(planned?) The other factor that played into our decision to change the trees, was that the variety that we had selected when we ordered the trees back in 2012 is now falling out of favor with consumers. So what to do? We have decided to change the trees over to Honeycrisp apples by grafting a Honeycrisp bud onto the existing tree, and starting over. Since the trees are already in place and have a decent root system, we hope to convert this part of the orchard over to a more popular variety and give these trees an new lease on life!

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We have removed the branches from one side of each tree to make room for a new bud to be added! That way it won’t have competition.

Grafting is a delicate art. It is the process of taking part of one plant and marrying it to another similar plant in order that it can continue it’s life there. In a few weeks we will be joined by an experienced crew of tree grafters to accomplish the first steps of this task. The complete transformation will take a few years, but we think our plan will be worth all the work and the wait. I’ll be sure to show you more of the process when we begin, and keep you updated from time to time on the progress of this project.

Here is another plan-buster. In this same orchard are rows of Gala apples. And every so often we find a tree that is definitely not a Gala. It’s like that old “One of these things is not like the others” song from “Sesame Street”. You can see it in the picture below. So we will be grafting these trees over to be Galas like the rest.

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On the left is a Gala tree, On the right? Who knows!
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Cutting back a “Who knows what?” tree

So while our best laid plans don’t always turn out the way we think, we will adjust and keep working toward our goals. Who knows what will change in the meantime? But it will all work out. At least that’s my plan! 🙂

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Brushing up on Spring!

Spring has Sprung!! Or at least the calendar says so. The weather has moderated some, although it is still freezing at night, and we still have remnants of snow laying around. Apparently winter isn’t giving up easily this year. Maybe it doesn’t like being told to go home!

Most of our apple and pear trimming is finished. With just a few rows of Fuji and Spy still to go, and some young Pink Lady apple trees that are still hanging on to last year’s leaves.

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Time to prune them, leaves or not!

I guess they aren’t ready to call it spring yet either. We are spending much of this week removing the trimmings from our winter pruning out of the orchards. This dry weather stretch has been helpful, because we can get around the orchards without tearing up the sod with our tractors. Some years that is not the case.

So what do we do with all that brush? Well the younger trees have small prunings that we chop into smithereens and leave right in the orchard. That’s good for putting the nutrients back into the ground. Our chopper has limitations though, so bigger limbs must be removed from the orchard and piled up to be burned.

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That’ll be some big hot dog roast! Whichever way we dispose of the brush, it has to be raked or swept into the center of the rows. And that requires a body and a rake. As kids growing up in the apple business we all knew what Spring Break meant. It meant raking brush. No, not on a beach somewhere in Florida or Mexico. Right here. On the farm. And whether Spring Break was early or late, it always seemed to coincide with…you guessed it…raking brush. Some years were cold and wet. Others were warm-ish and almost pleasant. But the job remained the same. It was always better if we could get some cousins or neighbor kids to help. The monumental task seemed to go faster that way. By the end of the week we were almost looking forward to going back to school!

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This row is raked!

With the brush cleaned up, I like the way the orchard looks in the spring. All the trees standing at attention, poised to begin the growing season.

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A fresh start. A new year. And while we don’t know yet what the season will bring, we are promised that spring will come, growth will begin, and the roller coaster ride to harvest will never be boring or predictable. Unlike raking brush….

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker