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

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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

 

 

 

Logging in–oldstyle. Part 3

So when we ended last week, the logs were all cut into boards at the sawmill, and we had hauled them home. Rough-sawn oak, hard and straight. Now we had to cut the boards into the lengths we needed to make the different parts of the apple bins; the bottom, the sides and the ends. Three different sizes were needed. So how to cut them quickly and uniformly? We used a “buzz rig” on our old Ford tractor.

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The buzz rig ran off a wide leather belt from a big pulley on the back of the tractor. It had a 30 inch round blade that remained stationary as it spun. A “table” on which the lumber was laid could be rocked forward, pushing the lumber into the blade. Dad had clamped a block on the end of the table so that when the board was up against the block, it would be cut to the right length. It was a noisy job, what with the tractor running at mid throttle and the saw blade “singing” with every cut. It was a dangerous looking rig when it stood still. Even more so when it was running. Dad always did the cutting, and I would stack the finished boards. I guess he didn’t want a son nicknamed “Stubby”

Once the lumber was all cut to lengths, the bin building began. First the bottoms, two thick rails set to width, with boards nailed across them to form a sturdy flat base. Oh, and we used hammers. You know, the old fashioned kind with wooden handles. No air nail guns here! And long spiral nails that were really hard. Dad could pound those nails into the hard oak with a couple of strikes. Me? Well, SOME of them went in straight. He would finish his side and set up the next bottom while I flailed away at my side. I got better at it with time, and he never chided me. He did tease me once in a while though after a particularly stubborn pounding session. By the end of the day my arm felt like rubber and my hand was blistered. And the thumb on my left hand was blue and swollen. Did I mention that I hit the wrong “nail” sometimes? I started wrapping my fingers with electrical tape to soften the blow!

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Next we would build the sides. Dad had made a jig that held the corners of the boxes straight and at just the right width. Once again, lots of pounding nails. Then we had to attach the sides to the bottom, keeping everything square. That was a little more difficult, because as he was pounding on his side of the bin the whole thing was moving my way. and I was trying to do the same from my side. We were both trying to start nails on a moving target! When the sides were finally attached to the bottoms, we could finish by putting the end boards on. And you guessed it…more nailing! As I remember, the number of nails in each bin was 174!

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I don’t know exactly how many of those bins we made, it was in the hundreds over the years I’m sure. But when they were finished, there were rows of gleaming white oak bins lined up in the yard. And the satisfaction he took from starting with a standing tree in the woods, and ending with a finished apple bin was the reward. Persistence, endurance, creativity, and getting your fingers out of the way of a descending hammer. All good lessons for a kid to learn.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

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

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!

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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

How good can come from bad.

Sometimes people react to adverse situations in unpredictable ways. In 2012, we lost our entire crop to multiple spring frosts. Some folks would have given up. Some would have taken the opportunity to take a vacation in the summer months for once (unheard of for a fruit farmer). Some might have taken a temporary job. We built a bakery.

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Now this wasn’t completely unplanned. For about 5 years we had talked about doing it someday. And in January, long before the frosts came, we made the decision to go ahead with the project. Later, when the crops froze, it opened up more time for us to work on the project. Funny how providence works sometimes. Over the next few months we began to accumulate some of the bakery equipment that we would need to accomplish our goals.Various pieces came from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and all around the great state of Michigan! As the weeks after the frost went on, two stalls of our then garage were slowly transformed and expanded to become the shell of what was to come–the Old Bell Bakery. With the help of friends and family we completely remodeled the building, adding more storage room and a rest room to our market too. We learned a lot about building, electrical wiring, plumbing  and making things look good (after messing them up the first time)! I think that we took some of it apart and put it back together so many times we could do it in our sleep!

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The girls got some great baking advice and experience from good friend Roger Ondersma, a long time bakery operator. And we got to enjoy a lot of trial runs of cookies, donuts and pastries as they perfected their technics!

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So as we begin our bakery’s fifth year, it’s fun to look back at how it all began. We love the excitement that our customers have about opening up for a new season! And I have to admit that it is nice to be able to pop in for a fresh donut and coffee at break time…or any time for that matter! Not many people can walk across the yard and do that! (all in moderation of course). And this season Tressa has added Grandma M’s Sugar Cookies, a tasty salute to her Grandma Moelker using Donna’s tried and true home made recipe! Looking back now, it’s neat to see how a leap of faith can turn into something wonderful. And how with the support of family, friends and great customers, a dream can become reality.

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A rare photo of Tom and Travis in aprons! With Abby and Tressa

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

Life is a pail of cherries…

Cherry season is here. For me, cherry season has always marked the middle of summer. Now on our farm we grow mostly sweet cherries. Black, yellow and red. They are fun to pick and yummy to eat. Each color has a little different flavor. And the season goes fast!

Back when I was a kid, and even before that, my dad grew a lot of tart cherries. Acres of them! And when it came time to pick them, he hired kids from the area to do the work. Not a lot of requirements to work at our farm back then. As long as you were 12 years old or older you had the job. A simple job really, just show up by 7:30 am and usually we were finished for the day by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. And in between you had to pick cherries, lots and lots of them if you could. Some kids were really fast pickers. Some were so slow that it seemed they hardly moved. And as the day went on it usually got hot and sticky. They worked on ladders and rode on a farm wagon to the orchard. Apparently OSHA had not been invented yet. The kids were a sweaty sticky, cherry juice mess when they left for home each day.

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Tart Cherries

There were distractions too. Hard to avoid when you put 25-35 teenage boys and girls together day after day. Lots of teasing and chatter. Cherry orchard romances. And cherry fights, messy, sticky, juicy wars that usually ended with my dad’s stern “OK that’s enough of that!” Best not get caught by Mr. Moelker! We would laugh when somebody’s mom put a cherry jam sandwich in their lunch, or gave them cherry Kool aid to drink for the day. What was she thinking?! I still wonder today if the moms did it by mistake or were  just getting a little revenge!

Over the years from the 1960’s to the mid 80’s, hundreds of local kids had their first job picking cherries at Moelker’s. For a couple of weeks each summer they shared a common purpose, or for some, a common misery. I still run into them, some now in their 60’s. And they say with a smile on their face, “I used to pick cherries here when I was a kid! I remember when…”, and they break into a story that we both laugh about! It’s amazing how time changes our perspective.  I suspect that even some of you reading this may have enjoyed that character building experience known as “Cherry season” when you were a kid. If so, let us know! Please comment on this blog. We would love to hear from you!

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Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Farming: The times they are a changin’…

My youngest graduated from high school a couple of nights ago. I don’t know how that sneaked up on me like it did. Seems like (insert crotchety old voice here) the years went by way too fast. But here I am now with three kids college age and older, and the time seems to go by faster each day!

My kids were unique in their school. They live on a farm. Growing up on a farm isn’t as common as it used to be. In fact, for most of us in this area it is becoming downright rare. I think when I was in high school there may have been one or two other farm kids in my class. Today I’m guessing its even less than that, if that’s possible.  Our connection to farms is fast disappearing. If you talk to your grandpa or grandma, they can almost always tell you stories about the farm when they were a kid. If they didn’t grow up on a farm, they had friends who did.  In fact, just a hundred years ago over 30 percent of the work force in this country was on a farm. Today that number is around 2 percent. And yet we produce more food than ever!

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Neil Moelker collecting the eggs

Farms were different back then. Most farmers produced almost everything they needed to eat. My grandparents had cows (milk and beef), a pig or two (pork), chickens (eggs and meat), a very large vegetable garden, fruit trees, grapes, corn and wheat. They canned hundreds of quarts of just about everything for their winter supplies. And they sold the excess for their income. Grandpa even made communion wine from his grapes for some of the local churches! They lived very much off the land and all of their hard work. The average American farm in the 1930’s fed 4 people.

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John, Neil and Gerrit Moelker working in the garden. 1922

Farms today are much more specialized. On our farm our focus is tree fruits. While we grow some vegetables to sell at our market, we haven’t had any livestock on the farm since I was a kid. And while we still have a garden, much of our family’s food comes from the grocery store. And today the average American farm feeds 155 people.

We don’t want people to forget where their food comes from. That’s why we do school class tours in the fall and teach the kids (and parents and teachers) about growing fruit. And we hope to have some family farm tour days in August(more details to come!) And if you ever have questions about what we do on our farm, feel free to ask!

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker