Water, water, everywhere…

Last week I was in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The snow was 3 feet deep, temperatures were in the teens, and Lake Superior was frozen as far as the eye could see. It was a winter wonderland! As we drove home on Saturday evening, we crossed the Mackinaw Bridge at sunset. The Straights of Mackinaw were frozen solid. It was a beautiful sight.

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What a difference a few days and a few hundred miles make! It is officially mud season now on the farm. You know what I mean, the time of year when everywhere you step or drive off-pavement becomes a squishy muddy track. I hate to drive out to work this time of year because every track becomes a puddle when it rains. And the huge rains we just got make the farm look a mess. So now we walk out to the orchard to trim now in the interest of preserving the land. Our only fear is getting stuck in the “quicksand” that is springtime in Michigan!

We are pruning young trees now, because the chances of below zero temperatures are less likely. So injury from the cold is less likely too. These small trees can be pruned quickly, but because there are so many more of them per acre it still is a time consuming process. But with a few simple trimming rules the trees can be made very uniform with short small limbs that will bear nice fruit, even in the early years of the tree’s life. Here is a video of Travis pruning some 3 year old apple trees in the snow a couple weeks ago. At least I think it’s Travis, hard to tell behind the cold weather wear!

Hopefully we have some winter weather ahead of us though. I’m not ready for spring to come yet. After all, it’s only February. And it isn’t time for our trees to wake up yet. We fruit growers like for spring to wait a bit and creep up on us slowly. I know you golfers can’t wait to get your sticks out. And you motorcycle riders are anticipating the first warm day for a ride. But if you want to have fresh apples next fall, let’s all be patient and have a normal Michigan spring.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

 

 

 

 

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Cold weather work

Well January started out so cold that we really couldn’t work out in the orchards at all. We normally would have been pruning the apple and pear trees, but with the below zero temps at night we had to delay that work for warmer weather. Not that we wanted to be out in that cold anyway! But when we cut a branch off in very cold weather like we were seeing then, the extremely cold temperatures can damage or kill the wood around those fresh cuts. Not something we want to risk.

But now the weather has moderated to the point that we have been much warmer than normal. It looks like this month that started out so cold will wind up with a nearly average overall temperature. I’ve often seen over the years that weather tends to average out over a period of time. A wet, rainy spring more often than not leads to a dry summer. And a period of below average temperatures is often followed by above average temps. So I’m not surprised by the warm days we have had recently. Me? I’d rather have snow!

Many of you ask what we do in the winter. Contrary to popular opinion, we do not spend the winter in Florida! While we do have a little more relaxed pace in the winter months, we still have plenty of pruning to keep us busy. We try to trim every fruit tree on the farm every year. It is a time consuming task, so it is good that we have a few months to get it accomplished! We start with the apple and pear trees, which when cut, can take the cold weather better than peach and cherry trees. We like to do the “stone fruits” like peaches, cherries and plums after they begin to grow early in the spring. They are more tender and susceptible to cold injury when cut in winter.

So how do we know which branches to remove when we prune? We look for unproductive branches that are just using up resources and not producing any fruit. Those are cut out, along with a few of the bigger older branches that are getting past their prime bearing years. The best fruit grows on younger wood, so that is what we try to leave in the tree. And we want to open the tree up so that in the summer, the sunlight can penetrate throughout the tree. Because a young branch with plenty of nutrients and sunshine will produce the prime fruit that we are looking for. We also want to shape the tree so that it is easily harvested and maintained. While each tree is different, we try to keep them all the same shape and size within any particular orchard. A uniform orchard is much easier to care for than one with trees of all shapes and sizes. Below is a “before” and “after” example of a Red Delicious apple tree.

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And we are always thinking ahead. “If I cut this branch out this year, that one will have more light and strength to produce good fruit next year. And next year we will cut out that other one to make room for the one just below it to grow.” Those decisions are made hundreds of times each day this time of year. It is tiring work, both physically and mentally. Fortunately the trees are somewhat forgiving!

So we get to know our trees. Each one gets a “once over” this time of year. As we prune, we can see where the cuts were made last year, and what we will cut out next year. It’s a long term investment of time and energy that hopefully will result in better orchards and better fruit. And after a day of pruning in the cold, a warm dinner with family and a good night’s rest is a welcome way to end the day!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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

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