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

 

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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

S’no joke!

So is it just me, or have we become winter wimps over the last years? Here it is, December 6 and the weather people are issuing a “Winter Weather Advisory” for the possibility of “a trace to 2 inches of snow overnight”. Seriously. I think that when it’s 60 degrees on December 4, like it was on Monday, a “Summer Weather Advisory” would be more appropriate.

Now I don’t want to sound like Great Grandpa and his “walking to school in 4 feet of snow” stories, but really? It’s December. It’s supposed to snow now. It seems that over half the vehicles on the road now have all-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive. So we have to be better at handling this kind of weather than we used to in our 4,200 pound rear-wheel drive Buick, right?

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We spent the last couple days at the Great Lakes Expo, the trade show attended by farmers and agriculture industry people from all over the U.S. While the focus is on tree fruit, vegetable, and greenhouse growers, lots of general farming information and experts are there too. It’s a great opportunity to learn at the seminars, talk with other growers, and just enjoy the company of a great community of growers from around the country.

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Travis and I catch up growing trends and techniques, and the girls learn and share about farm market and bakery operation. There are always new ideas, trends, and even some stories about what not to do to be learned. I’ve said it before: I’ve never seen an industry where “company secrets” are shared so openly in an effort to make us all better at what we do. It is a real “we are all in this together attitude” shared by everyone from university professors, research scientists, equipment manufacturers, sales people and farmers alike.

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It’s one of the reasons I enjoy farming so much. The people. Whether they are growers I see weekly throughout the year, or some that I only see at the Expo once a year, they are a great group of genuine, down to earth friends. And I”ll bet they know how to drive in snow too.

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

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

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