Picky, Picky!

Apple harvest is in full swing! Our days are filled with keeping our workers supplied with apples to pick, and apple bins to put them in. Then our evenings are spent putting the bins into cold storage, or getting them ready to truck away to wholesale customers. It’s a busy time of year!

Every apple harvested on our farm is picked by hand. There are no machines as of yet to take over that task. It’s hard work. A good apple picker can harvest 150 bushels of fruit in a day! And at 42 pounds per bushel, well, you do the math. As we go through the fall, we work our way through the many varieties that we grow. Each ripens at it’s own time, beginning with Lodi in late July, and ending with Granny Smith around November 1st. In between over twenty other varieties are harvested when ready. Some are picked just one time, harvesting all of the fruit at once. Others, like Honeycrisp, are picked over several times, taking just the ripest, most highly colored fruit each time.

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Another Honeycrisp novelty is the fact that when picking, we clip short the stem on every apple. It is a time consuming task, but worth the extra time and money. Honeycrisp have a very tender skin, and often, a long pokey stem that will damage the apple next to it when placed in a bin. Damaged apples lose a lot of value in the marketplace, so we do whatever we can to prevent that. Our workers carry a small stem clipper strapped to their index finger. Once picked, the stem is quickly snipped off and the apple placed into the picking bag that each worker carries. Over the course of a day the process is repeated thousands of times! The bag is slung over the shoulders and holds about 30 pounds of fruit when full. These people are professionals!

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Our apples go to many different places in the fall. Many are sold right from our market to customers who visit us. Some are used in our bakery for pies, breads, and dumplings. Much of the crop goes to packing facilities that package and sell the fruit for us to grocery chains. Some of the apples go to Nestle (Gerber) to be processed into baby food. Others go for fresh slices or cubes sold to the fast food industry for salads or packaged fresh apple slices. Still others are sliced and frozen for pie companies. Each apple has a purpose and a place to go!

So this is “crunch time” (pun intended). We begin the day before sunrise, and often end after sunset. We pray for good weather, fret when rain stops our harvest, and then remember that all of this is in the hands of One who knows exactly what we really need. And that is the best place there is for our harvest to be!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker     tompic

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An eye for color.

Hi, I’m Tom, and I’m color blind. “Hi Tom.” All my life I’ve felt like there should be a support group for people like me. We could get together and tell, um, color stories. Like “So I came downstairs with this shirt on and my wife says:”You can’t wear THAT shirt with THOSE shorts!” Tell me about it. I’ve heard it all my life.

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I remember in school when the subject came up in biology class. There were these little images made of different color dots that we had to look at. “Regular” people saw the number “74” when they looked at the image. I just saw a bunch of dots. And then it began. “Moelker can’t see it! Hey, what do YOU see Moelker? What color is this? What color is this?” They could have sold tickets to that sideshow. After a while you learn to buy clothes in colors you can see. And you learn which shirts go with what pants, etc. But then you get clothes as a gift, or your wife buys you a new shirt and, well, you have to ask “What color is this?” or “What can I wear this with?” Fortunately I have an understanding wife who patiently helps me.

So I had learned to deal with the malady over the years. When my kids were little, they thought I only saw things in black and white! And then someone came up with the Gala apple. Now you have to know, in the old days we had apples that were red. Or yellow. Or green. But nooo, that wasn’t good enough. Now we have this Gala apple that is “…pink to magenta, with a background color that goes from light green to cream when it’s ready to pick.” Huh? I’m still trying to get the right shirt on in the morning and now my occupation is turning against me! And then it was Honeycrisp. And Pink Lady. All of a sudden you have to be Picasso just to pick an apple at the right time! And peaches! Don’t even get me started on peaches. I have actually learned to pick peaches by the feel and shape of them alone. You see, they get to be more round and less almond shaped when they are mature. And when you grasp them in your hand, they just feel right. I can’t explain it really.

And so it’s hard for me to teach someone else how to pick a peach or a Honeycrisp apple by looking at the color. I’ve given that task over to my wife and my kids, all of whom can see colors perfectly well. When it is time to begin picking Honeycrisp with a new crew of workers, My son or my wife (or both) come out and show the harvesters what the color requirements are. Most pick it up quickly. I’ve watched this instruction time and time again. I still don’t know what they’re talking about. “See the difference?” they ask. All the heads nod, “Yes.” Me? I just shrug my shoulders and look hard to see the number “74”.

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I do have one advantage though. If the sun ever goes out and we have to pick peaches in the dark, you guys will be lost. And I’ll be right at home, picking with my eyes closed!

Have a fruitful (and colorful) week!

Tom Moelker         tompic

Drip drip drip…

It’s dry around here. We have had about 1/2 inch of rain in the last six weeks here on the farm. Combine that with the hot sunny weather we’ve had and, well, it’s dry around here. In the last week there has been rain within a mile or two of us on the north, west, and south sides. But not here. It’s dry around here.

So we are irrigating as much as we can. We are blessed that in the last 8 or 9 years, we’ve made the decision to put drip irrigation into most of our orchards. And in a year like this, irrigation will make a world of difference. We are running the wells almost 24/7 and have been for weeks now. The trees that have water available look good. I think we are keeping up with their demands. The crop is heavy in many places, and right now the orchards need one and a half to two inches of water per week. It takes us all week to put that much on through over 15 miles of drip tubes. The tubes look like black garden hose, and they run down each row with a water emitter every 3 feet. Running all week long. That’s a lot of drips! God could do the whole farm in an hour.

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There are some orchards here that do not have irrigation. Mostly older bigger trees that have big root systems that can pull water from deeper soil. Some look Ok. A few are suffering. But a good rain soon would still make a lot of difference. We are sprinkling the pumpkins now too. They are setting fruit right now,(that’s right, pumpkins are a fruit!),  and it is important to keep the plants happy! Pumpkins are 90% water you know!

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Today we set up a new weather station on our farm. It can tell us everything from temperature to wind speed and direction to rainfall amounts. That may seem trivial to the average person, but to us much of what we do is planned around weather. The thing even claims to be able to forecast weather for us. I’ll wait and see on that one. We are   hooked into the Weather Underground system as a reporting station. So if you want to know what the weather is on our farm, look up the Moelker Orchards station (KMIGRAND269) on the Weather Underground website or app, You will be able to see if it rained here. Me? I’ll just go outside. If my head gets wet it’s raining. Or I’m fixing an irrigation leak. If it gets sunburned, it probably isn’t raining, and I should wear a hat.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker         tompic

 

Shear madness

When I was a kid we had bushes in our yard. I guess that bushes were the landscape trend du jour, because it seems everybody had some form of them. We had Spirea bushes and a big Syringa bush that always seemed overgrown. The row of Spirea bushes provided us with a fun game of guessing which bush which kid was hiding behind. They were big and dense enough that you couldn’t tell who, if anyone was there. Yes, I know, simpler times, easily entertained, yada yada.

One thing about those bushes I didn’t like though was that a few times each summer they had to be trimmed. It was a hot, itchy task performed with a set of shears that looked like a giant scissors. I have to admit that while I didn’t like the job, I did like the way the bushes looked when the job was done. Big round green (or white when in bloom) balls that if done right would be perfectly symmetrical. For a week or so. Before they started growing shaggy again!

This week we are hedging our newer apple orchards. What is hedging? Well I’ve written before about the newer plantings being a solid narrow row of trees with no breaks. So hedging is how we can quickly trim the trees in summer to keep them from getting too bushy and shading the fruit. It shapes the row into a narrow canopy so that the sunlight can penetrate and color the fruit. The task is performed with a large sickle bar similar to the old hay mowers that we used to cut hay with. Mounted vertically on the front of a tractor, the blade shears the row as we slowly drive along. We can change the angle of the cut on the fly as needed. The result is a nice even “hedge” of apple trees with the fruit exposed to the sun. Here is a before and after shot.

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Here is a video from the driver’s seat! Who knew that all that bush shearing would come back around to me later in life?

Grafting update

The grafts we did on the apple trees this spring are growing well. We’ve begun to trim back the original trees so that the grafted shoots get more nourishment and growth. Some current pictures here. Notice the grafted shoot coming out from the white taped area on the trunk! IMG_3839IMG_3843

Summer is a busy time filled with lots of varied tasks! Nobody ever says they are bored around here. If you do, we’ll put you to work!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker    tompic

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