Coffee time

I’m always interested in how other crops are grown. I don’t mean regular stuff like beans and corn, but things I haven’t seen grown before. So last week while Bonnie and I were on vacation, we toured a coffee plantation. And I learned a lot about coffee that I didn’t know before.

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Kauai Coffee is the largest coffee estate in the United States. For well over 100 years, this property was used to grow sugar cane. But beginning in 1987, the family began to make the switch to growing coffee instead. Today the numbers are staggering. Over 4 million coffee bushes spread across 3,100 acres of land. The orchards on the estate produces millions of pounds of coffee each year. They grow 5 main varieties of coffee on the estate, but like us apple farmers they are always trying new kinds to look for improved taste and quality.

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As I drove on the highway that parallels the estate, I was struck by how “orchard like” the coffee fields looked. Row after row of very uniform bushes that went on for miles along the road. Everything was very neatly kept. I was impressed! The bushes were very green (as they are all year long) and were beginning to bud. Bloom time begins later this month and lasts through April with different varieties blossoming at different times. By May the green “cherries” are forming. Yes that is what they call them and it took some getting used to!  Throughout the summer the entire estate is under daily drip irrigation. Just a few miles north of the estate is one of the wettest mountain areas on earth, receiving over 460 inches of rain each year. Through a series of canals and ditches Kauai Coffee uses this rainwater to provide nearly 28 million gallons of water DAILY to the coffee orchards!

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Coffee buds that will bloom soon!

In mid-October, the coffee “cherries” are beginning to get ready for harvest, and they do resemble red cherries. They are harvested with what looked to me like a blueberry harvester that drives over the row and removes all the cherries at once. This goes on for about 7 weeks. The coffee bean is actually the seed in the center of the “cherry”. As soon as harvest begins the process of removing the flesh around the bean, cleaning, drying and sorting the beans starts too. Coffee is very fragile and these tasks must be accomplished as quickly after harvest as possible. The final task is roasting, and it is a very delicate and exacting process. Mere minutes separate a medium from a dark roast!  Kauai Coffee grows, harvests, roasts,  grinds and packages their coffee right on the estate. We tasted many combinations of roasts and varieties, and it is amazing how each is slightly different in flavor and aroma.

Here are some other interesting things we learned:

Coffee bushes are grown from seed, not grafted like apple trees.

It takes from 7 to 9 years for a coffee bush to start bearing.

Once bearing, a coffee bush is cut back to a stump to renew it about every 9 years. Then it starts bearing again about three years later.

It takes 7 pounds of green coffee beans to make one pound of dried finished coffee.

Dark roasted coffee has less caffeine than medium roast. So “drink dark roast in the dark “(at night) is the rule of thumb. It won’t keep you awake as much.

It was fun to see and learn about something I really had no knowledge of before. While in some ways, farming is farming, the subtle differences and similarities in growing are amazing. It was funny that while I was asking them about growing coffee they wanted to know about growing apples. That made me smile. I guess farmers are farmers no matter where they find themselves!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Chillin’ out

With the unseasonable weather we are having, there is one subject that I get asked a lot about lately: “Are the warm temperatures going to hurt the trees? Will they start blooming?” Well the answer is no. But that opens up a complicated and fascinating subject.

When a fruit tree finishes its growing season, it slowly enters the process of dormancy as winter approaches. Temperatures play a large role in this. With the warm fall we had this past year this process was delayed for weeks. But once the trees reached the dormant stage, that’s when the chilling begins.

Fruit trees need a certain number of “chilling hours” in order to rest and prepare for the next season. A chilling hour is defined in different ways. Some of the calculating models say that any temps below 45°F count, but others, oddly enough say that temps below 30°F do not count as chilling hours. Still other models begin at 50°F and below and count any hours above 60°F as subtracting from chilling hours. Confused yet? So am I! (and the trees probably are too!) But it is generally accepted to use temperatures between 32°F and 45°F as satisfying the chilling hour standard. And that is the degree range that is tracked by adding up the hours each day during the winter.

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Different fruits, and even different varieties within a fruit type, have different requirements for chilling hours. Most apples need 700-1000 chilling hours to grow and produce properly. There are exceptions such as Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith which need only 400 -600 hours. That is why those varieties are commonly grown in California. Most peaches need 750-950 hours although again there are some as low as 200 hours. Cherries  need 1000+ chilling hours–ever notice that most are grown in the northern U.S.A.?

So what happens if a fruit tree doesn’t receive enough chilling hours in the winter? Well the tree may produce buds with very weak and uneven blossoms, or it may bloom later and over a wide time period. In severe cases the trees may not bloom at all and have a difficult time producing leaves!

Fortunately here in Michigan we have pretty consistent accumulations of chilling hours year after year. The varieties of fruits that we grow are nicely suited to the chilling hour numbers that we see. If you have ever seen a climate zone map such as those put out by nurseries and seed companies, chilling hours are one factor that goes into determining the the different zones. Want to calculate the chilling hours in your neck of the woods? Here is a place to do that.

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So our fruit trees need some time to just chill out in order to recharge for another growing season. Probably a lesson in there for all of us!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Trimming the trees

It’s a new year, and just like that we go back to winter with a vengeance! But it is, after all, January in Michigan-what do we expect? This time of year things on the farm have slowed down a lot. The holidays are over, the bakery is closed, and we have only a few weeks worth of apples left to sell. So now our focus turns to the annual task of pruning (trimming) apple trees.

There is an old story that when Michelangelo finished his famous statue of David an amazed patron asked “How do you create such a fine work of art?” His answer? “I just chip away everything that doesn’t look like David!” While this story may or may not be true, It comes to mind when someone asks me “How do you know which limbs to cut off and which to leave?” Well there are methods and some rules of thumb to abide by, but some of is just that I kind of know what I want the tree to look like when I’m finished. If I lined up 5 of my fruit growing friends and all looked at the same tree, we probably would not all make the same cuts. That’s because we all have a different picture in our heads of what the finished product should look like!

The older plantings on our farm are pruned in more traditional ways. Free-standing trees, with strong main branches are maintained by removing the yearly “sucker” growth. “Suckers” are  the thin, upright sprouts with no fruit buds on them. Occasionally a large limb is removed in favor of a younger fruiting branch. Outsides and tops are cut back to contain the tree to it’s space and the branches are thinned to let sunlight in. This process is accomplished by riding in a self propelled trimming machine equipped with hydraulic saw and lopper. The driving and moving side to side and up and down are all done with levers run by my feet. This leaves my hands free to use the pruning tools and make the needed cuts. After years of running this machine, I rarely think about the driving part, my feet just do the task subconsciously. Up one side of the row and down the other, hour after hour, day after day.

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Newer plantings are an entirely different animal though. While some of the same principles are applied, These trees will have no permanent limbs. Every year we remove 2-4 of the biggest limbs, leaving a stub that hopefully will send out a new branch the following summer. In this way, the apples are always growing on young, healthy branches and older wood is constantly being replaced. The trees are kept very narrow so that sunlight can penetrate the entire tree from all sides. I’m still getting used to this newer method and it takes a little more thought for me, probably because I’ve been doing it the old way for so long!

So how do I keep from getting bored during the seemingly endless hours or trimming? Well I do have to pay attention to what I am doing, but I often have music or a podcast going in my ears as background noise. My phone is set for hands free calling too, so I can make or answer calls without missing a snip! Technology is great!

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So even during the heart of winter we are trying to …

Have a fruitful day!

Tom Moelker

Christmas reflections

It is just a few days before Christmas. I don’t know why, but this week always marks the passage of a year for me. Even more so than the Old Year’s/New Year’s celebration. The busy Christmas shopping at our market and bakery, the making of fruit baskets, gift baskets, and boxes for shipping, all ends at Christmas Eve. After all the anticipation of the holidays and the frenzy of shopping and shipping deadlines, the last customer has been helped and it seems too quiet, too calm. What lies ahead now is a long winter of tree pruning, a very solitary task.

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I enjoy the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We settle into a holiday season where our usual selling of apples is punctuated by unique requests for special gifts for friends and family, both near and far away. It is fun to interact and imagine someone opening a box of Honeycrisp apples in Texas, or a salsa sampler in Colorado. Or a business associate receiving a gift basket of goodies from the bakery and market. I guess that bringing joy to people is what gives me a lot of satisfaction throughout the season.

When I was young, Christmas was a time of such excitement and anticipation! As a kid I probably didn’t think so much about giving gifts as I did getting them. And it was so fun to get to Christmas day! What would be under the tree? We rarely knew what was coming, and that made it all the more fun! Lincoln Logs, Matchbox cars, or a new Flexible Flyer sled, how much better could it get? Even the new blue jeans, dark, dark blue and so stiff that they would almost stand up by themselves (and abrasive to wear for the first couple weeks!) Winter boots, hats, or mittens were a staple too. And all were thoroughly tested out before the day’s end.

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Now that I am older, I think the giving part is more fun. Maybe that’s why I like to work in the market in December. Whenever someone leaves holding a gift basket or box, I feel a little like I’m giving it too. What fun! Whoever said it more blessed to give than receive was right. And I’ll bet they were older too.

I hope this Christmas is a joyful one for all of you. I hope that whatever your circumstances, you get to treasure time together with family and friends, giving and receiving and sharing with one another. And I hope that together we all celebrate and receive the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. Because besides being the reason we celebrate this time of year, He is the best example of giving and receiving that we could ever have.

Merry Christmas! And have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Back to school?

Winter looks like it’s finally setting in. It has been a beautiful fall season that lasted longer than usual. But now it is December and what’s a farmer to do? Well an older gentleman who happens to be a  fruit grower like me once told me: “Winter is time for learning”. I’ll never forget that. This man has probably forgotten more about fruit farming than I will ever know, and still he takes advantage of learning opportunities well into his 80’s. That should set an example for all of us.

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A car wash? No, an over-the-row blueberry picker!

This week we have been attending the Great Lakes Expo down at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids. It is a 3 day trade show dedicated to fruit, vegetable, and greenhouse farmers and is attended by over 4,000 people from the growing community. Besides a huge equipment show with over 450 exhibitors, there are more than 70 workshops and education sessions on a wide variety of topics. Everything from the latest technology to new marketing opportunities are on display here. Not only are there tractors and specialized equipment, big and small, from clever designers who are often farmers themselves, but also high-tech computer apps and hardware to make everything more accurate. Bumblebees(packaged of course) and brush choppers, apple slicers and website builders, irrigation systems and frost fans, if it has to do with farming, it is represented at the Expo. It really is amazing!

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That’s one big tractor! Note the regular sized tractor parked underneath it!

Our whole family attends the show, and we all are able to take some new knowledge away from the experience. Often it serves to renew our excitement looking toward next season with new ideas to try out and tweaks to things we are already doing. It makes us better at what we do! And I think sometimes we learn as much from our conversations with other growers as we do from the formal education sessions. I am always impressed at how farmers, generally a pretty independent bunch, are also a tightly knit community willing to share their knowledge of the trade with their peers. And at an event like this it is evident as groups of people from around the country and the world discuss and share ideas to make better growers of all of us. Pretty heartwarming! I’ve been attending this event since the late 1970’s, when it was held in the basement of the old Civic Auditorium, and each year I meet new people and old friends.

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Back to school! a seminar on the latest orchard planting systems.

So my 80 something year old friend is right. For us winter is time for learning. And planning. Because I’ve also heard it said:”If you stop learning, you better stop farming”. That probably is true of many things in life.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Thanks for the memories

Thanksgiving. You know the history. The holiday was established way back when the pilgrims celebrated their first harvest in 1621. So for a farmer it has a special meaning that ties us closely to the original celebration. Perhaps we farmers just feel a little more pilgrimmy(is that a word?) on Thanksgiving Day.

I always am annoyed by the way the marketing folks have twisted the purpose of the celebration. Words like “Thanksgetting” and “Thanksgathering” are substituted to try to sell products and change the focus of the day. It’s all about turkey and football and shopping it seems. Kinda drives me crazy. Why can’t we just have a day to thank our Creator for sustaining us through another year? Isn’t that why the holiday was established, after all? Ok, enough already. I’m starting to sound like Andy Rooney.

Thanksgiving has always been a favorite holiday for me. Perhaps because I grew up on a farm it did have that added sense of celebration. But 30 years ago this Thanksgiving week my dad, Jim Moelker, passed away after a very short battle with a very aggressive cancer. It was tough for all of us to lose him, and even though it has been a long time I can still remember that day as though it was yesterday. It made for a very difficult Thanksgiving week that year, and though time has eased the loss over the years, there is always a tinge of sadness attached to the season for me now. It didn’t seem fair at the time, and though my sense of “fair” has matured over the years it still touches my heart. Dad was a man who taught by example more than by words, and my knowledge of growing fruit for the most part came from him. He and my mom sacrificed a lot to raise us five children and teach us what was right. I don’t think we ever realized that at the time though. Working beside him every day created a different dynamic for me. Not only as father and son, but also teacher and student and perhaps even boss and employee? But we also fished, hunted and snowmobiled together and I learned a lot of life lessons from him. A multi-faceted relationship to say the least!

Jim and Tom July 1983

Jim and Tom July 1981

The years since dad passed have taught me that thanksgiving isn’t just a reaction we feel quickly when we receive something we like. It goes much deeper than that. It is a peace, a quiet calmness that comes from knowing that whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in, God is there too, working on our behalf. And while we can’t always see it, I certainly didn’t back then, that knowledge can keep us truly thankful in good times or bad. Isn’t that what the holiday is really about?

So I hope you take some time to reflect on the people in your life this Thanksgiving season. They have been put there for a reason, and in many ways, great and small, they are a blessing to you. And take time to be a blessing to them too!

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In memory of Jim Moelker 1924-1986

Have a fruitful (and thankful) week!

Tom Moelker

Guest Blog: Tressa Moelker

The seasons are changing rapidly now. The temperature is dropping and the sun isn’t staying up as long anymore. The days are getting shorter and things may be slowing down on the farm, but in the bakery we are still going strong. We’re making fresh donuts every day and bringing our fudge to craft sales on the weekends. Craft sales are a fun way to get off the farm for a while to sell our products and meet new people. Our employees enjoy those days too!

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Courtney showing off our display at the Jenison Christian craft sale

We also did a fudge fundraiser this year with a local high school. It was extremely successful and we are rushing to get 300 pounds of fudge orders filled. The nice part with fudge is that we can make it a few days ahead of time, unlike donuts. With donuts, we make them all the same day that we sell them to you. This is what causes the 3 o’clock mornings on Saturdays in October. We don’t mind though because the happy customer’s smiles are plenty of a reward for the early mornings. You may be wondering how many donuts we make on those busy Saturdays. Our biggest day was about 3,800 donuts! All with a little machine that puts out a maximum of 28 dozen an hour. Thankfully, I have a lot of dedicated and caring employees (and family members) that are willing to put in the hours with me to make sure everything gets done. Whether it’s coming into the bakery early to mix donut batter for me, or coming back out after hours to make apple dumplings!

img_2694Travis and I making dumplings and cookies on a Friday night

We enjoy those busy days, but it certainly is nice to be able to “sleep in” until 5:30 now on Saturday mornings. The slightly slower days provide rest and the ability to get caught up on things in the bakery that I wasn’t able to get done during the craziness in October. Which in turn helps me prepare for the busy holiday season ahead!

Have a sweet week!
Tressa Moelker

What to choose?!

Choices. We all have to make them, whether we like to or not. Some choices we make are difficult but fun. What flavor of ice cream to have is that kind of decision. Some (like the ice cream) have short and sweet results! Others take years to formulate and a lifetime of events result. Marriage comes to mind. Hopefully long and sweet results there! Some people seem to be able to make a choice and move on, not worrying about the consequences. What a blessing! I do not fall into that category, by the way. Just ask my family. I tend to agonize over my choices after the fact and often think I could have made better ones. (Not true of my marriage)!

Here on the farm, choosing what kinds of fruit to plant can be a challenge sometimes. We have hundreds of varieties to choose from, and many of those we have never seen before. Add to that the fact that we have to order the trees 2-4 years before we actually get them. And then it is another 3-4 years before we actually have any fruit in our hands to offer. So we have to guess what the customers will like far into the future. Sometimes it turns out well. Honeycrisp comes to mind. We had never seen or tasted one when we ordered the trees! But oh the joy they bring to our taste buds! There are times when a new variety, the “next big thing”, doesn’t turn out as well. It may be difficult to grow or inconsistent in it’s quality. And in the time between ordering and bearing, consumer demand may have fallen off. Or a newer, better variety may have come along. Then, it’s back to the drawing board.

The trend lately in the fruit industry is to market new kinds of apples as ” Club Varieties”. The nursery or company that owns the patent on the variety limits the number of trees planted and chooses which farms can grow them. The farmer in turn has to pay for the right to grow the trees. Then the fruit, when it is ready, must be marketed through the parent company. The theory is that by limiting production the prices can be kept higher–sort of a supply/demand model. Most of the hot new varieties (i.e. SweetTango, Jazz, and others) are now released that way. While I am not a fan of this model, I understand the economics behind it.

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As a consumer you have a lot of choices when you are shopping for apples. With so many varieties available it can be difficult deciding what kind to get. That is why when you come to us for apples, we ask what qualities you like in your apples. How are you going to use them? Do you like them sweet or tart? Do you like your applesauce smooth or chunky? These are the questions we will ask you. And then we’ll try to point you to an apple that will satisfy your tastes.

What kind do I like? Fortunately I can choose a different apple every day if I want to. After all, it’s one of the perks of being an apple grower. And I don’t have to agonize about it because there is always another one to try next. I like that!

Hope you have a fruitful weekend!

Tom Moelker

Now what do we do?

And just like that, another harvest season is finished. With the exception of 3 or 4 bins of Granny Smith apples that won’t be ready for a few more days, everything else is picked. The long days of work that begin before sunrise and end long after dark have for the most part come to an end. This is not to say we are finished working for the season.  The orchards need to be prepared for winter. Everything needs to be mowed, sprayed for weeds (if time allows), and generally cleaned up. There is also plowing and preparing land for next spring’s planting. Irrigation systems need winterizing before the hard frosts begin. But the daily deadlines that characterize harvest time can be relaxed, and the work can be done during daylight hours.

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Granny Smith apples. Almost ready!

It always seems to end so abruptly. After weeks of being in the orchard all day with the harvest crew and then spending the evening putting the day’s harvest in the cooler, or loading it up to haul away the next morning, the daily grind actually slows down. It is almost hard to remember last spring when the  first green leaves appeared on long dormant trees. It seems so long ago. And yet when I look back at the season it mirrors the growth timeline of most every other year of my farming life. Green tipped buds turn to blossoms, which become fruit of ever increasing size, and finally develop into each unique variety of apple, pear or peach. Then the long hours of harvest, punctuated by weather, market demands, and sometimes inconsistent availability of laborers; seem to slow time to a standstill. I find myself wondering how the Creator has so much patience with me in the fall, while my own patience seems to evaporate completely at times. I need to step back and realize how much I truly am blessed.

As a family we are tied together by our work in the fall. Each person has their place in the everyday operation of the farm, the market and the bakery. And any task that falls in between those segments must be completed as well. While we are stretched, we are also pulled together in ways that non-farming families never realize. We work toward a common goal, and that takes cooperation, whether we feel like it or not (and sometimes we may not)! Because in the end, the machine that is our farm needs all of its many parts to function in order to be successful. Our employees are a very key part of all that goes on here in the fall. We couldn’t do this without them. And sometimes those parts also include friends and neighbors who lend a hand as well. We appreciate that more than they know!

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So as the harvest winds down, another growing season goes into our memory. Another  portrait of God’s faithfulness through the seasons is added to the gallery of now 109 years that the Moelker family has subsisted on this farm. Good crops, poor crops, life-changing family events all blend together in our memories to make the colors of that portrait. It is a treasure that we can look back on and learn from. And that lesson gives us faith for the future as well.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

I always wondered…

It’s a the busiest time of year for us here at the farm. Harvest is in full swing right now, and has been for many weeks. Added to that is the frenzy at the market and the bakery that keeps the girls hopping all day long! Together those tasks keep our family working long hours every day(except Sunday)! And on Saturdays it seems everything gets multiplied as families come out to buy apples and pick pumpkins, take a horse-drawn wagon ride, or just devour our fresh warm donuts and cold cider!

Along with all the customers come many questions about everything apples. Some questions are unique, but it seems we answer some repeatedly throughout the day. So in this weeks blog I’m going to answer some of our most-asked questions.

Do you sell all of your apples here? We sell a lot of apples here, but they also go to other places. Some go to a packing facility that packages them for grocery stores such as Meijer, Kroger and Costco. Others go to the company that makes fresh slices for McDonald’s and cubes for Wendy’s salads. Still others go to Gerber to be made into baby foods.

Do you use a machine to pick your apples? No. Every apple on this farm is picked by hand. There is not a machine available to pick apples as of yet, but work is being done worldwide to develop one.

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How do you know which trees are which–they all look the same! Think of it this way. You know what trees and flowers are planted in your back yard, especially if you did the planting. The same is true here. It’s just that our back yard is bigger than yours! We planted them and we spend every day taking care of them.

How many kinds of apples do you grow? We currently grow 26 varieties of apples. The earliest are ready in July, and the last we pick around the first of November.

What is the best way to store our apples? As cold as you can keep them without freezing them. We store our apples at 31-32 degrees. Apples freeze at 28 1/2 degrees. If you don’t have refrigerator space, a good place is in a large picnic cooler in your garage once the weather cools down. And do not store them with carrots. Carrots make apples ripen prematurely!

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Can we just take a walk in the orchards? Unfortunately, no. Our biggest corporate customers require us to have an extensive food safety program on our farm. One of the requirements limits severely who can and cannot be in our orchards.The general public is not allowed. We spend hours (and a lot of money) going through audits of this program in order to be able to sell to Costco, McDonald’s and other national customers.

What do you do in the winter, go to Florida? Sounds like a great idea! And we do take a week or two off in the winter. But the orchard work continues year around. Winter is when we prune our trees, repair equipment and prepare for the next season.

These are some of the most frequently asked questions that we hear in the fall. We enjoy answering them, along with many others. It is good to know that our customers are interested in the farm and the work that we do! And we encourage you to ask as well at any time. In the mean time…

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker