What’s next?

Well the harvest is in, and things around the farm have settled down from the peak frenzy of October. Overall this season went well. We had a good harvest crew, and with the dry fall we were able to stay on track as the apples matured–no rain days to put us behind! It always is a good feeling to have the crop tucked away inside the coolers.

But while the pace slows down some, there is still a lot of work to be completed before winter sets in. Everything needs to be mowed to reduce the hiding places of tree-nibbling mice and rabbits. Weed spray will help that too. Tree trellis wires need to be checked and tightened after a heavy crop load has weighed them down. Equipment maintenance that may have been put off during the business of harvest now has to be taken care of. We have to winterize all of the irrigation lines and wells before freezing temps set in. Ladders, apple boxes and picking equipment all have to be gathered up and stored away for the winter. And the buildings on the farm need to be cleaned up and reorganized after a hectic fall’s work. My son Travis is good at that. I’m more of a “toss is aside, we’ll deal with it later” kind of guy. He likes to have things organized. Maybe that’s why I’m always asking him where things are!

The trees need attention too. After working so hard and using up so much energy to produce a nice crop, we give them a good foliar nutrient mix to perk them up before winter. We don’t want them to be tired and hungry before going to bed! Another thing that helped the trees during the drought this fall was the irrigation system. I have never watered the trees so late into the fall as I did this season. The lack of rain in August, September and much of October this year had the potential to keep the fruit small, and really stress the trees going into winter. But with the ability to keep the orchards watered we could keep the trees happy through harvest. And then, towards the end of October, we finally got rain! Bunches of it! And the soil soaked it up almost as fast as it came down. What a blessing!

So now that the days are shorter. The sun goes down around dinnertime. The apple crop is in. And we can put another season in the books. It’s funny how when we get to this point, all of the work, all of the troubles, the frost and the drought and the hail that we endured over the course of the season, seem like a distant memory. I guess that is a blessing we can count, along with all of the others that we give thanks for each day.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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Old Iron

Well our apple harvest is almost finished. We are still waiting for a few later varieties to ripen so we can close the book on another growing season. It is always a relief to finish the harvest. It’s like crossing the finish line in a race. And even after doing it for so many years it still feels like an accomplishment every year. So although the race isn’t quite over yet, we can see the finish line!

While on one of my many trips back to the orchard with my tractor a few weeks ago, I found a piece of history. I was driving down “the lane”, the old path that has been used for over a hundred years to travel the length of the farm. I’ve traveled this path thousands of times in my life, as did my family and the generations before me. In fact, if I mention “the lane” to my brothers or sisters or cousins they will know exactly where I am speaking of. Anyway, on this particular day I spotted an odd shape sticking up out of the dirt. I got off the tractor and pulled it loose. It  was a horseshoe, rusted and worn from years of weather. How long had it laid there? I have no idea, but it has been many years since horses have been used on this farm. It made me think about the old days. Did Grandpa come home that day only to discover that one of the plow horses had lost a shoe? And what happened then? Did he have to call the farrier to come re-shoe the horse? Sort of like fixing a flat tire on the tractor? Probably not quite as serious as that, but still another thing to deal with on a busy day of farming.

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I often come across an odd piece of iron that works it’s way to the surface. Sometimes I can recognize what it was–a bolt or something maybe. But my Dad always knew what it was. “That’s the bolt from the plowshare.” or “That bracket came from the threshing machine.” He had an intimate knowledge of how things were put together. It seems that over time, piece by piece, those old tools distributed themselves over the farm! When I was young I would proudly come home with my latest find. These days I just knock the dirt off the find and put it in the tool box, so I don’t get the aforementioned flat tire later. But this horseshoe was different. I have found a couple of them over the years, and each time it takes me back to an entirely different era. This isn’t just a bolt or a bit of broken iron. This was fashioned and attached by a craftsman, and who knows how many steps or days or months it was fastened to the horse’s hoof. And what Grandpa said when he saw that it was missing. Maybe it’s better I don’t know that 😉

It is funny how something can stop your day for even just a moment, and take you to another place and time. And it’s kind of fun and maybe a little more meaningful for me as I get older, to see something as simple as an old horseshoe. I can imagine an excited little boy a 100 years from now coming home with a piece of one of my tractors. From where “the lane” used to be. What a treasure!

Have a fruitful week!

P.S. My mom, Donna Moelker, celebrates her 93rd birthday today! I hope she has a fruitful day too! If you see her, wish her well!

Tom Moelker

Harvest time

Tomorrow is the official first day of Fall. Apparently Mother Nature got fooled again, because it is supposed to be 90 degrees outside! While some folks like the thought of another beach or cottage weekend in the sun, I would rather have some cool nights and temperate days in the low seventies. That seems more like harvest weather to me, and it is better for the apples too. Cool nights and sunny days make for crisp red apples!

We are marching along through harvest at a pretty fast pace now. Each day it seems we are picking another variety. And each day we are checking other kinds of apples to see what we will pick next. When I was younger, Dad would cut apples open to see if the seeds were dark brown yet. An indication of maturity, but not necessarily ripeness. That was determined by the very scientific taste test. Is it sweet enough? Is it still crunchy? It’s ready to go! Those are still very valid measures of ripeness, but now we quantify those  characteristics with devices that measure sugar content, starchiness, and firmness. We do these tests on the farm, and MSU also does a larger sample of each variety every week. They send us the data which tells us the pace at which varieties are ripening, and that helps us to plan and watch out for surprises. Because apples don’t always ripen in the same order every year. In a hot year, for instance, Gala will ripen ahead of McIntosh. In a cool summer it’s the other way around. This year was sort of average, and both varieties ripened at the same time!

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Pressure testing for crunchiness!

The cool weather we experienced during the first part of September was perfect for making apples red. We could see the color improve from day to day, it was that dramatic! But while the nice color was there, that didn’t mean the fruit was ready on the inside. Honeycrisp were a beautiful shade of red weeks ago. They looked gorgeous! But on the inside they tasted sour and immature. That is where testing comes in handy. And restraint. We don’t harvest them until the flavor is sweet and the apple is ready. Trust me, we tried them daily until we finally decided “It’s time!”

This hot weather is going to push apple ripeness along at a faster pace than normal. It also makes the harvesting, which is hard, heavy work, more uncomfortable. No air conditioning in the orchard. And while you are working in trees, it isn’t necessarily shady. Kudos to our harvest crew for their persistence! So we are ready for some cooler days and nights to give us, and the apples some relief! Sorry beach bums and cottage dwellers, you had your summer. Now let’s have some Fall! Frankly I can only taste so many apples a day!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Looking back.

Our farm has been in the family for 110 years as of 2017. That is a long time. It makes me wonder what Grandpa John Moelker would say if he could see the farm now. In some ways it is the same. The house, the lay of the land, the Grand River winding lazily across the west end of the farm. I’m sure some of it would still be familiar to him. Other things, of course would be vastly different from the farm he worked and knew well.

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The relationship between a farmer and his farm is an amazing thing. I often compare it to a person and his or her back yard, only bigger. You know where the weeds are in your lawn, which plants flower and when, and how much that one tree has grown since you moved in. You remember where Billy used to jump off the swing set, and where Susie would hide in the corner of the lot when she was angry. Each square foot of space holds a memory if you have lived somewhere for a long time.  For me it is the same, only on a larger scale. Since I have spent so many years on this farm, seeing most or all of it every day, subtle changes stand out to me and memories are everywhere.

 

We pushed out an orchard this year that was planted in 1975. I was 15 years old then. Which means that for most of my life since then, those trees have been under my care. And though it sounds crazy, each of those trees had its own characteristics that I could relate. That one tipped over in the early ’80’s during a hard wind and rain storm. This one, for some reason always produced apples that didn’t get very red. Those two trees always get ripe a few days before the rest. That tree, when it started bearing, was not a Red Delicious like it was suppose to be. It was an Early Blaze. Mislabeled at the nursery that sold it to us. On and on it goes. And it isn’t just trees and orchards that trigger these familiar thoughts. Places on the farm bring up memories too. That hollow tree in the woods that has had raccoons living in it for as long as I can remember. I was standing right here when I shot my first deer. Dad once got his tractor so stuck right here that it took every thing we had to pull it out. We laughed later, much later. It wasn’t funny then. I jumped out of the truck here once to try to stop a runaway wagon before it hit some apple trees. The wagon stopped on it’s own. The truck, however, was not in neutral when I bailed out, and it proceeded to mow down two apple trees before it stopped. I still can’t laugh about that one. The look on Dad’s face? Well let’s just say I didn’t say much the rest of that day!

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My dad ran this farm for a lot of the 110 years. And Grandpa did too, in the years before that. I’m sure that each of them had their own stories and ideas about interesting spots all over the farm. Funny how one piece of land can, over the years, evoke so many memories, good and bad. I think sometimes that if Grandpa, Dad,and I could sit down together and talk about the farm it would be an amazing conversation. I get tears in my eyes just picturing that scene. So many years of observations, memories and changes. Yet even after 110 years, some of it is still the same. And each day I add more thoughts and memories. Just like you do, in your back yard.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

The more things change…(the more they change!)

If you stick with farming long enough, you will see change. Some changes are small, and it doesn’t take long to forget them. Other changes are bigger, more momentous, and you can remember the day they occurred.

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Grandpa Moelker and his team.

When my Grandpa started on this farm in 1907, there were no tractors. Horses were the tractors of the day, and a good team was an important part of the farm. Depending on the soil, a man with a good team could plow up to an acre and a half in a day. It was hard, tiring work, walking behind the horses muscling a plow all day. But then came the tractor, and suddenly a farmer could do 4 to 5 times that and still be fresh at the end of the day. When a farm got a tractor, everything changed! Talk to any old-timer and you will hear “I remember when we got our first tractor!” Flash forward to today, and a big tractor and a chisel plow can do an acre in 5 minutes!

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First tractor!

I’ve had a small taste of this in the last few weeks as my cab equipped tractor has been in the shop for repairs. For some years now, it didn’t matter how hot or cold or rainy it was outside. Inside the tractor things were always comfortable. It didn’t take long to get used to that. But lately I have had to use an open tractor for all of my work, and it is downright uncomfortable! Its hot! (or cold). It’s dusty. It’s noisy. I’m getting sunburned. And there is no radio! I look at the horse farmer above and realize I’ve become a sissy.

Other things have changed too. I can remember watering trees during a dry summer. We would pull a 500 gallon tank of water and run a hose on each tree for as long as it took to put 5 gallons out. Then move to the next tree. A seemingly never ending task. The highlight was when the tank was empty and  could go back to refill it. Now I just set the clock on the irrigation system and forget about it. Easy-peasy.

I remember when we got an auger attachment for the tractor. It would drill a neat hole for putting in a fence post in just a minute or less. No more post hole shovel. And for planting trees, it was awesome. A 24 inch auger bit would drill a nice round hole that you could plant an apple tree in perfectly. Just set the tree a the right depth and shovel the loose dirt back in around it. Saved a lot of digging! Now go to Facebook and look at the video showing how we plant now.  (It is a couple years old already!) What is a shovel, anyway?

Some things are still the same though, even after all these years. Picking our apples is still done one at a time, by hand. The same way Grandpa did it over 100 years ago. And pruning our trees in the winter, while the equipment is more modern, still takes an eye and a decision maker to remove a limb. Changes are coming though. I’ve seen prototype robotic apple pickers. Computer driven tree pruners are being worked on too. Pretty hard to imagine. But I’m sure tractors were hard to imagine at some point too!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

 

 

We’re being invaded!!

Things are always changing in the orchard. Some changes are good, like new varieties and plantings. But some changes can be difficult to deal with. Over the last few years two new invasive species have appeared in the USA and moved from south to north. The are in Michigan now, and they have an appetite for fruit! And that’s a change we growers are going to have to deal with.

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Spotted Winged Drosophila

The first is the Spotted Winged Drosophila (SWD). That in itself is a mouthful. SWD is a fruit fly, not unlike the common fruit flies that everyone has seen hanging out in your house or at the produce department. You know that fruit flies like over-ripe fruit and fruit with a cut or a bad spot in it. That’s OK. We didn’t really plan on eating that bad fruit anyway, right? But that is where the SWD differs from your run of the mill fruit fly. You see, the Spotted Winged Drosophila likes nice sound fruit that is still hanging on the tree, vine or bush.  And that presents a problem. Because we don’t like bugs in our fruit, and neither do you! These little pests can go from egg to adult in as little as 8 days! So they have the potential to really disrupt the small fruit crops like raspberries, blueberries and cherries. We will have to find ways to control them at a very critical time–from just before the fruit is ripe to when you pick it! We are working on a fix for this invader. In the meantime, we have traps in our orchards to detect them when they arrive, and Michigan State University is providing us with research and information.

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Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

The second unwelcome guest in our orchards is the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB). These bugs have been moving into Michigan over the last 5 years or so. They originated in Asia and apparently hitch-hiked here some years ago. The BMSB likes to chew on apples and peaches later in the summer and throughout the fall. Which once again presents a problem for growers and consumers of our fine Michigan fruits! Usually by August the pests that like apples have run their course for the year. But that is just when the BMSB is getting ramped up and hungry! And they can really do some damage when they are hungry! So like SWD, we are trapping for the Stink Bugs (aptly named I think). And when they show up we will be waiting for them. And hopefully we will be ready.

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BMSB damage on apples

So what do we do with these alien invaders? Building a wall won’t help because they can fly. And we can’t check them at the border either. They are already here, so we will have to have to deal with them. But, by working with scientists and biologists, we will find a way to solve the problem and continue to get those delectable apples and sweet cherries to you. Without surprises.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

“Should I stay or should I go?”

That is what the apples and other fruits on our trees are asking lately. Now that the bloom is finished and the fruitlets are growing, we enter a period known to fruit growers by a very technical term:”June drop”.  No, really that’s the name! It is the period which usually occurs in early to mid June, during which the fruits either terminate and fall off, or continue to grow into mature fruit. It occurs in all of the different fruits that we grow.

But how is that decision made? And can we tell exactly which will stay and which will go? Well, eventually we will know what is left, but for now we have some clues that can help us estimate the crop. In an earlier blog I wrote about Gibberilins, those plant hormones that help the apples communicate with the trees, and vice versa. Gibberilins are produced in the seeds of the apple, and the amount of them that are coursing through the tree help the tree “know” how many apples are on it. But not every apple on the tree after bloom has seeds in it. If the blossom wasn’t pollinated or the process didn’t fully complete, the seeds may not have been made. Most times those fruitlets without seeds won’t stay on the tree. Some apples will have just a seed or two on one side. Many times those will fall off too, but if perchance they stay on and grow, they will be misshapen, one side will be bigger than the other.

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Stress plays a role too. Not the stress that us growers are under, but the stress that the trees experience. Stress can be caused by drought, extreme heat, or an excessive number of fruits on the tree. Any of these can cause the tree to compensate by kicking some fruits off so it can better support the ones that are left. That is where the Gibberilins come in.

So how does the crop look this year? Well, we are still waiting for it to sort itself out. Some years what looks like a full crop dwindles greatly during June drop. In other years too many apples stay on and we spend a lot of time thinning them off by hand to improve quality. As you can see in the photos, there are all different sizes on the trees right now. Some smallest ones certainly will fall off by themselves. And the largest, healthiest ones should stay on and grow. But the jury is still out on those middle sized ones. Many of those that we cut open have no seeds, or the seeds are drying up. But others look just fine inside. What are we to do? We wait.

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Different sizes on the trees right now.


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The top 3 have dead or no seeds. Bottom 2 look good!

The same process occurs in our pears, plums and cherries too. Pears are finished and they look good! Cherries and plums are very close to completing the June drop and they look plentiful too. Peaches? They usually need a lot of hand thinning every year. A toilsome task in all it’s fuzziness (also see a earlier blog!). We are thinning peaches now. But apples will be sorting themselves out during the next couple of weeks and asking themselves: “Should I stay or should I go?” Stay tuned and we will all find out!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Cold and sleepless nights…

We had some frosty nights this week that kept us up all night. Sunday night and Monday night were situations that fruit growers dread. When the fruit trees are in full bloom, they are the most susceptible to cold injury. And that was exactly the scenario early this week.

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Cherries on the fringe got singed by the cold!

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But these cherries survived very well!

Temperatures fell into the upper twenties both nights and endangered the delicate flower parts that develop into the fruits we grow. We spent both nights doing all we could to keep the orchards warmer. A degree or two can make all the difference in situations like this. So as the thermometer headed toward the freezing mark, we began fighting off the cold. In our sweet cherry orchards we set up over a dozen wood fueled fires to add heat to the mix. We started our frost fan shortly before midnight each night and it ran for about 8 hours both times. The goal of the fan is twofold. It moved the heat from the fires throughout the orchard. But even without the fires, fans can pull warmer air aloft down and distribute it around its circumference. The fan we have is 23 feet high, so it reaches up for the warmer air. Where does the warmer air come from? During the day the sun warms the soil. As the sun goes down, the colder air aloft settles down toward the ground, and the soil begins to give up its warmth. That warmer air rises and forms a layer on top of the cold settling air. That is the layer we try to mix into the colder surface air. It doesn’t always  work. If there is wind, the layers don’t form and all the air is the same temperature.

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The little peach in the center of this photo looks good! 

Another thing we did to stave off the cold was irrigate. We ran our irrigation system for 2 days prior to the frosty nights, and all night both nights. Since water comes out of the ground at 52 degrees, there is some warmth to be given off as we irrigate. Wet soil can also give off its heat more readily than dry soil, so we try to gain any advantage we can in this way too.

We also pray. A lot. Knowing that whatever happens we will be OK in God’s hands. And knowing that our feeble attempts to alter the weather are no match for His power.

So everybody wants to know, “How did you come through the frost? Did you have a lot of damage?” Well, It is a little early to tell how everything did. It looks as though many of the fruitlets survived. In fact, we are optimistic that we will have a crop at this point. What we don’t know is what the fruits will look like when they are grown. Some scarring and other damage may have occurred, but time will tell. But we feel blessed that we seem to have come through the cold in good shape!

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We cut across the buds to look inside. The apple bud on the bottom is green and alive! The one on top is frozen!

And after a stretch of 60 hours on 5 hours of sleep, Tuesday night had no threat of frost, and a high chance of rest! We took full advantage of that!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Flower power!

BOOM! “What WAS that?!” A couple of weeks ago that was all the conversation around the area as the mystery explosion was investigated. Turns out it was a bunch of guys shooting at an exploding target at a bachelor party south of here! Hard to believe, I know. 😉

This week we had an explosion here that was much more pleasant. The cherry and plum trees exploded in blossoms with the warm weather over the weekend and into this week! I’ve seldom seen such an abundance of bloom on the cherry trees! And just a few days later the pears burst into full bloom too. The peach trees are full too, and although the flowers on a peach tree are not as showy from a distance, they are quite beautiful up close. Apple bloom always trails the others by a week or so and they are just beginning to open now.

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Cherry blossoms

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Peach blossoms

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Pear blossoms

The bees arrived on Monday night and are already hard at work pollinating the fruit trees. Walking through the cherry orchard there is a distinct “hum” in the air as hundreds of thousands of honeybees go about their business. These bees know their stuff! And they are well traveled too. They winter in Florida pollinating in the citrus groves. At some point the travel to California to the almond orchards to do their work. Then it’s back to Florida again to finish the winter crops. Last week they were loaded on a semi truck and hauled up here to Michigan to move into the apple and cherry orchards. There are six hives on each pallet, and each houses around 25,000 to 35,000 bees this time of year.

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These are truly “migrant” workers! Once the trees fruits are finished blooming, the bees will move into the blueberry fields. They spend the summer here in Michigan and then the cycle starts over again. It never seems to end for these little critters, but they never are as happy as when they can gather pollen and nectar on a warm sunny day. And on a rainy day when they can’t go to work they are ornery. It’s risky to even approach the hives on a day like that!

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Blossom time is always so beautiful here on the farm. The fragrance in the orchard is almost intoxicating. Each type of flower has its own distinct shape, color and aroma. But in spite of the beauty,  the list of tasks is long and demanding at this time of year. The warm Spring has pushed our season ahead of normal by about 2 weeks. We are still finishing our pruning on peaches and cherries, and it is finally drying out enough to work the ground. Soon we will be planting trees. So sometimes when we are so busy we have to be reminded to stop and smell the…blossoms! That’s good advice for everyone.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

This bud’s for you!

After a roller-coaster winter with a warm February followed by a cold March, spring finally showed up last weekend. Apparently the trees were ready, because the bud development over the few warm days was phenomenal! The growing season is off to a quick start. We are about 10 days ahead of normal growth right now. Back in February we were 25-30 days ahead, so the cold March did slow us down!

The fruits we grow on our farm fall into two categories: Pome fruit and Stone fruit. Pome fruits are fruits that have a seed cavity in the center with many seeds. Apples and pears fall into that category. They are generally grown in the same way, and even the wood of the trees is similar. The also are susceptible to many of the same pests and ailments.

The other class, stone fruits, are named such because of the single “stone” (pit) in the center of the fruit. Examples we grow are cherries, peaches and plums. Once again these trees grow and are treated in very similar ways, and have a different array of pests and problems than the pome fruits.

While in the orchards today, I looked at the different buds on the many kinds of fruit trees. On a warm day in the spring you can see the growth changes from morning to evening. Stone fruits generally bloom before pome fruits, and at this point peach and plum buds are already swelled far enough that we can see the outsides of the petals! Each bud is one peach(left) or plum(right) in the making.

 

Cherries are a little less advanced. What looks like a cluster of buds on a cherry limb is actually a cluster of clusters–each bud you see here contains 3-7 actual cherry blossoms. That is why when it’s cherry picking time, they often are hanging in bunches.

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Sweet Cherry buds

Apples(left below) and pears(right below) are set up a little differently. Each fat bud contains 5 individual apple or pear blossoms that are tightly clustered together at first. As the growth progresses they extend on their stems and separate out just before bloom. Right now they are tightly tucked inside a covering of tiny leaves. That serves a some protection against cold nights to come. But the more they advance, the less the protection and more susceptible to frost they become.

You know the saying “April showers bring May flowers”. We might just see some April flowers this year!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker