Logging in–oldstyle. Part 2

Last time I told about how my dad would cut down trees for lumber to make his own apple bins. When I left off, we had loaded the logs on the truck to take them to the sawmill. The mill we went to was located on the opposite side of the Grand River just about a mile downstream from where we cut the logs. A hundred years earlier they would have just rolled the logs into the river and floated them down to the mill. There were quite a few sawmills along the river up and downstream from Grand Rapids, supplying the furniture industry during that era. Log traffic on the river was common.

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But we were trucking the logs to the sawmill. We drove down Lake Michigan drive, crossed the river by Grand Valley to Allendale, headed south and then back east to the river again. There, back in the woods along the river, was an open-air sawmill run by an old man my dad knew. They would shoot the breeze for half an hour before he would unload the truck. That gave me time to wander around and look at the old sawmill equipment. It looked positively like something from Dr. Suess, but with more straight lines! Rails and hooks and levers and belts were everywhere. Kind of like a mini railroad yard. And right in the middle, a big round saw blade, probably 4-5 feet in diameter. The sawdust around the thing was 2 feet deep! I couldn’t imagine how the whole thing worked.

Dad waited to leave so I could see how the whole contraption worked. The old man would fire up the big gasoline engine and roll a log onto the machine. Then, with deft skill the process would begin. He would work the levers and pulley ropes and the log was moved back and forth through the saw, each pass cutting a slice off with a deafening screech. It was amazing to watch one man control the choreography of  whole process so precisely with such archaic equipment! And no earplugs, guards or safety shutoffs. Obviously OSHA hadn’t been invented yet.

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A week or so later we would return to the sawmill. Our lumber was neatly stacked off to the side, waiting for us. Layer upon layer of uniform oak boards, cut to the measurements that my dad had ordered. I can still remember the aroma. Not the  smell of treated lumber that you notice in a big box store. This was the delicious scent of freshly cut lumber right out of the forest. Once loaded I remember wondering how a full truckload of logs had shrunken into half a truckload of lumber. Ah yes, the sawdust. And the big pile of trimmings with bark on it that lay off the end of the sawmill.

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Back at the farm we had to unload and sort the boards into the different sizes for each part of the boxes. But the sawing wasn’t finished yet! Next week I’ll tell how the whole box-building process was completed.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

Logging in–oldstyle

We recently took delivery of some new 18 bushel apple bins for holding harvested apples. They are all tucked inside out of the weather waiting for the fall harvest to begin. While walking past them the other day, I was reminded of a time way back in the early 1970’s when my dad, Jim, first began using big bulk bins instead of bushel crates. And made them himself. From scratch. Well, at least from trees that he cut down from our woods along the river on the back of our farm.

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Dad was good with a chainsaw. He could fell a tree pretty much where he wanted it to fall. When I was young I thought maybe he had been a professional logger or something. The neighbors knew it too. When they needed a tree cut down and it was a dicey situation, it was “…better get Jim over here to do it.” So cutting some big oaks for apple bins wasn’t a big deal for  him. The trouble was where they were located. Down along the river which was at the bottom of a steep 150 foot hill. We couldn’t drive a tractor down there, so getting them to the top was a daunting task.

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Dad had a long steel cable that was about an inch thick; it was probably a couple hundred feet long. After the logs were cut into 10 or 12 foot lengths, he would hook a chain around one end and fasten the cable to the chain. The cable went up the hill and was attached to the Allis Chalmers D-17 tractor that was the mainstay of the farm. Then up the hill he would climb to the tractor, leaving me by the log with a “cant hook,” a long wooden handled tool with a large hook on the end. Cant hooks were used to roll a log over on the ground. Then dad would get on the tractor and begin to pull the log.

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The hill was fairly heavily wooded. Getting a log up to the top without it getting stuck on another standing tree or stump was almost impossible. I followed the log up the hill as it crawled along. I couldn’t see dad, and he couldn’t see or hear me over the noise of the tractor. It was kind of eerie watching the log silently sliding up the hill with no sound of the tractor above. If the log got hung up on a tree I was supposed to yell to dad and warn him. Funny thing is that he never would hear me from where he was. His warning was that the tractor would come to a sudden stop! Then he would appear at the top of the hill. “What happened?” he would shout. “It’s stuck on a tree” I would answer. “Why didn’t you yell?!” I laugh about that now. I didn’t think it was funny then.

Sometimes I could get it rolled free by myself. Sometimes dad would have to come down and help me. But by the end of the day there were logs on top of the hill and we were both  tired. And I was hoarse from yelling so much. Dad would load the logs on our flatbed truck with the rear-mounted forklift on the tractor. It was good that mom wasn’t there to see the front wheels of the tractor come off the ground under the weight of the heavy log on the back. That wouldn’t have gone well. And the next day…well, I’ll write about that next time!

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Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

The weather roller coaster…

As I write this, the temperature is 29 degrees and it is snowing like crazy outside. Yet at this time yesterday it was 57 and we were in the middle of a thunderstorm! This has been the pattern over the last few weeks. And we found out today that this February was the warmest on record!

So the questions continue: “What is this doing to the fruit trees?” Well it’s confusing to us for sure, and I’m guessing that the trees are mixed up a little too. In looking at the apple buds day after day, I can see that they have broken out of the dormant stage. The buds on some varieties are in fact quite swollen. If we remain cold for a while the growth should come to a standstill. But with the forecast reaching the upper 50’s for the weekend again, bud development will inch forward again. So how do we know where we should be in a normal weather year? And how do we compare that to where we are now? The answer lies in calculating “degree days”.

In an earlier blog I talked about chilling hours, and how important they are to the fruit growing process. You may recall that calculating chilling hours tells us how far along in the dormancy stage the trees are. But we also calculate “degree days”, and that tells us how the trees are progressing in the growing season. Figuring out degree days is done using a couple different models. For simplicity’s sake we will use the easiest way  which is done by adding the low temperature of the day to the high and dividing by two.

Apple trees grow at 42 degrees and warmer. If the average temperature for the day is above 42, you begin counting degree days. So if the low for the day is 35, and the high is 55, the average is 45 degrees. That gives you 3 degree days for that day (3 degrees above 42). Each day is calculated separately and added to the total.

With years of data in the books we can estimate the number of degree days at which fruit buds are in different stages of growth. For instance, McIntosh buds first start showing green at around 127 degree days.

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So what does all of this mean? Well as of today we have accumulated around 57 degree days. While that is quite far ahead of normal for March 1, we won’t be adding any more for a few days here with the cold weather. But the forecast will add some more this weekend and we will keep adding up the numbers as the days go by. Hopefully we will just creep along over the next weeks and not really blow up our temperatures like we did in 2012. This early warmth will probably move our season ahead of normal some. How much? I guess we will know when we get there! But at this point a week or two earlier than normal is probably a reasonable estimate. But remember, this is Michigan. It could be still snowing in April!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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