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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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

 

 

 

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

 

Coffee time

I’m always interested in how other crops are grown. I don’t mean regular stuff like beans and corn, but things I haven’t seen grown before. So last week while Bonnie and I were on vacation, we toured a coffee plantation. And I learned a lot about coffee that I didn’t know before.

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Kauai Coffee is the largest coffee estate in the United States. For well over 100 years, this property was used to grow sugar cane. But beginning in 1987, the family began to make the switch to growing coffee instead. Today the numbers are staggering. Over 4 million coffee bushes spread across 3,100 acres of land. The orchards on the estate produces millions of pounds of coffee each year. They grow 5 main varieties of coffee on the estate, but like us apple farmers they are always trying new kinds to look for improved taste and quality.

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As I drove on the highway that parallels the estate, I was struck by how “orchard like” the coffee fields looked. Row after row of very uniform bushes that went on for miles along the road. Everything was very neatly kept. I was impressed! The bushes were very green (as they are all year long) and were beginning to bud. Bloom time begins later this month and lasts through April with different varieties blossoming at different times. By May the green “cherries” are forming. Yes that is what they call them and it took some getting used to!  Throughout the summer the entire estate is under daily drip irrigation. Just a few miles north of the estate is one of the wettest mountain areas on earth, receiving over 460 inches of rain each year. Through a series of canals and ditches Kauai Coffee uses this rainwater to provide nearly 28 million gallons of water DAILY to the coffee orchards!

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Coffee buds that will bloom soon!

In mid-October, the coffee “cherries” are beginning to get ready for harvest, and they do resemble red cherries. They are harvested with what looked to me like a blueberry harvester that drives over the row and removes all the cherries at once. This goes on for about 7 weeks. The coffee bean is actually the seed in the center of the “cherry”. As soon as harvest begins the process of removing the flesh around the bean, cleaning, drying and sorting the beans starts too. Coffee is very fragile and these tasks must be accomplished as quickly after harvest as possible. The final task is roasting, and it is a very delicate and exacting process. Mere minutes separate a medium from a dark roast!  Kauai Coffee grows, harvests, roasts,  grinds and packages their coffee right on the estate. We tasted many combinations of roasts and varieties, and it is amazing how each is slightly different in flavor and aroma.

Here are some other interesting things we learned:

Coffee bushes are grown from seed, not grafted like apple trees.

It takes from 7 to 9 years for a coffee bush to start bearing.

Once bearing, a coffee bush is cut back to a stump to renew it about every 9 years. Then it starts bearing again about three years later.

It takes 7 pounds of green coffee beans to make one pound of dried finished coffee.

Dark roasted coffee has less caffeine than medium roast. So “drink dark roast in the dark “(at night) is the rule of thumb. It won’t keep you awake as much.

It was fun to see and learn about something I really had no knowledge of before. While in some ways, farming is farming, the subtle differences and similarities in growing are amazing. It was funny that while I was asking them about growing coffee they wanted to know about growing apples. That made me smile. I guess farmers are farmers no matter where they find themselves!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Back to school?

Winter looks like it’s finally setting in. It has been a beautiful fall season that lasted longer than usual. But now it is December and what’s a farmer to do? Well an older gentleman who happens to be a  fruit grower like me once told me: “Winter is time for learning”. I’ll never forget that. This man has probably forgotten more about fruit farming than I will ever know, and still he takes advantage of learning opportunities well into his 80’s. That should set an example for all of us.

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A car wash? No, an over-the-row blueberry picker!

This week we have been attending the Great Lakes Expo down at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids. It is a 3 day trade show dedicated to fruit, vegetable, and greenhouse farmers and is attended by over 4,000 people from the growing community. Besides a huge equipment show with over 450 exhibitors, there are more than 70 workshops and education sessions on a wide variety of topics. Everything from the latest technology to new marketing opportunities are on display here. Not only are there tractors and specialized equipment, big and small, from clever designers who are often farmers themselves, but also high-tech computer apps and hardware to make everything more accurate. Bumblebees(packaged of course) and brush choppers, apple slicers and website builders, irrigation systems and frost fans, if it has to do with farming, it is represented at the Expo. It really is amazing!

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That’s one big tractor! Note the regular sized tractor parked underneath it!

Our whole family attends the show, and we all are able to take some new knowledge away from the experience. Often it serves to renew our excitement looking toward next season with new ideas to try out and tweaks to things we are already doing. It makes us better at what we do! And I think sometimes we learn as much from our conversations with other growers as we do from the formal education sessions. I am always impressed at how farmers, generally a pretty independent bunch, are also a tightly knit community willing to share their knowledge of the trade with their peers. And at an event like this it is evident as groups of people from around the country and the world discuss and share ideas to make better growers of all of us. Pretty heartwarming! I’ve been attending this event since the late 1970’s, when it was held in the basement of the old Civic Auditorium, and each year I meet new people and old friends.

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Back to school! a seminar on the latest orchard planting systems.

So my 80 something year old friend is right. For us winter is time for learning. And planning. Because I’ve also heard it said:”If you stop learning, you better stop farming”. That probably is true of many things in life.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

What to choose?!

Choices. We all have to make them, whether we like to or not. Some choices we make are difficult but fun. What flavor of ice cream to have is that kind of decision. Some (like the ice cream) have short and sweet results! Others take years to formulate and a lifetime of events result. Marriage comes to mind. Hopefully long and sweet results there! Some people seem to be able to make a choice and move on, not worrying about the consequences. What a blessing! I do not fall into that category, by the way. Just ask my family. I tend to agonize over my choices after the fact and often think I could have made better ones. (Not true of my marriage)!

Here on the farm, choosing what kinds of fruit to plant can be a challenge sometimes. We have hundreds of varieties to choose from, and many of those we have never seen before. Add to that the fact that we have to order the trees 2-4 years before we actually get them. And then it is another 3-4 years before we actually have any fruit in our hands to offer. So we have to guess what the customers will like far into the future. Sometimes it turns out well. Honeycrisp comes to mind. We had never seen or tasted one when we ordered the trees! But oh the joy they bring to our taste buds! There are times when a new variety, the “next big thing”, doesn’t turn out as well. It may be difficult to grow or inconsistent in it’s quality. And in the time between ordering and bearing, consumer demand may have fallen off. Or a newer, better variety may have come along. Then, it’s back to the drawing board.

The trend lately in the fruit industry is to market new kinds of apples as ” Club Varieties”. The nursery or company that owns the patent on the variety limits the number of trees planted and chooses which farms can grow them. The farmer in turn has to pay for the right to grow the trees. Then the fruit, when it is ready, must be marketed through the parent company. The theory is that by limiting production the prices can be kept higher–sort of a supply/demand model. Most of the hot new varieties (i.e. SweetTango, Jazz, and others) are now released that way. While I am not a fan of this model, I understand the economics behind it.

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As a consumer you have a lot of choices when you are shopping for apples. With so many varieties available it can be difficult deciding what kind to get. That is why when you come to us for apples, we ask what qualities you like in your apples. How are you going to use them? Do you like them sweet or tart? Do you like your applesauce smooth or chunky? These are the questions we will ask you. And then we’ll try to point you to an apple that will satisfy your tastes.

What kind do I like? Fortunately I can choose a different apple every day if I want to. After all, it’s one of the perks of being an apple grower. And I don’t have to agonize about it because there is always another one to try next. I like that!

Hope you have a fruitful weekend!

Tom Moelker

I always wondered…

It’s a the busiest time of year for us here at the farm. Harvest is in full swing right now, and has been for many weeks. Added to that is the frenzy at the market and the bakery that keeps the girls hopping all day long! Together those tasks keep our family working long hours every day(except Sunday)! And on Saturdays it seems everything gets multiplied as families come out to buy apples and pick pumpkins, take a horse-drawn wagon ride, or just devour our fresh warm donuts and cold cider!

Along with all the customers come many questions about everything apples. Some questions are unique, but it seems we answer some repeatedly throughout the day. So in this weeks blog I’m going to answer some of our most-asked questions.

Do you sell all of your apples here? We sell a lot of apples here, but they also go to other places. Some go to a packing facility that packages them for grocery stores such as Meijer, Kroger and Costco. Others go to the company that makes fresh slices for McDonald’s and cubes for Wendy’s salads. Still others go to Gerber to be made into baby foods.

Do you use a machine to pick your apples? No. Every apple on this farm is picked by hand. There is not a machine available to pick apples as of yet, but work is being done worldwide to develop one.

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How do you know which trees are which–they all look the same! Think of it this way. You know what trees and flowers are planted in your back yard, especially if you did the planting. The same is true here. It’s just that our back yard is bigger than yours! We planted them and we spend every day taking care of them.

How many kinds of apples do you grow? We currently grow 26 varieties of apples. The earliest are ready in July, and the last we pick around the first of November.

What is the best way to store our apples? As cold as you can keep them without freezing them. We store our apples at 31-32 degrees. Apples freeze at 28 1/2 degrees. If you don’t have refrigerator space, a good place is in a large picnic cooler in your garage once the weather cools down. And do not store them with carrots. Carrots make apples ripen prematurely!

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Can we just take a walk in the orchards? Unfortunately, no. Our biggest corporate customers require us to have an extensive food safety program on our farm. One of the requirements limits severely who can and cannot be in our orchards.The general public is not allowed. We spend hours (and a lot of money) going through audits of this program in order to be able to sell to Costco, McDonald’s and other national customers.

What do you do in the winter, go to Florida? Sounds like a great idea! And we do take a week or two off in the winter. But the orchard work continues year around. Winter is when we prune our trees, repair equipment and prepare for the next season.

These are some of the most frequently asked questions that we hear in the fall. We enjoy answering them, along with many others. It is good to know that our customers are interested in the farm and the work that we do! And we encourage you to ask as well at any time. In the mean time…

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

A honey of an apple-part 2.

Last week I wrote about the history of the Honeycrisp apple and some of it’s characteristics. It is an awesome apple, but we often are asked why it costs more than other apples. I like to describe it this way. You know that one kid in every classroom that always needs extra attention? That’s Honeycrisp. It is the neediest apple in the orchard! It needs to be grown in cooler climates. Hot summers like this year are really hard  on this apple. Honeycrisp needs to be grown on lighter, sandier soil. It needs to be on a semi-weak tree. It needs to have a certain number of apples per tree. Too many and it won’t produce a crop next year. Too few and the fruit will be very big and more subject to internal disorders. It needs a certain amount of rain on a regular basis in order to not throw off the balance of nutrients in the apple and the tree. In short, Honeycrisp is THAT KID!

Remember that I said that the cells in the Honeycrisp are twice as big as those in other apples? While that makes for an amazing crunch and juicy goodness, it also presents an internal problem when the fruit is developing. You see, the cell walls are also very thin, and they are trying to contain all that juice. So they are very susceptible to breaking and causing a disease called bitterpit. You may have seen the little black freckles on a Honeycrisp apple that can develop over time. That’s bitterpit, and it is the apple grower’s nightmare! It typically doesn’t show up until a few weeks before harvest, and by then it is too late to do anything about it. Losses can be devastating, and sometimes despite all of the preventative measures we take, it still shows up. In fact, bitterpit can even develop after harvest while the apples are in refrigerated storage!

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So to deal with all of the needs, we have to treat Honeycrisp differently than all of the other apples. Weekly applications of calcium are made to try to strengthen cell walls. Tests to determine nutrient levels in the tree and the fruit so we can try to get them right. Choosing trees on root stocks that will produce a weak-ish tree (but not too weak). Finding the right soil on the farm to grow them. And hand thinning the crop to a certain number of fruits per tree. After harvest they have to be stored at 50 degree temps for a week before they can be stored with the other apples at 32 degrees.

Now I know this all sounds pretty daunting, and it is. And hopefully this will help explain the higher cost of the apples that result from all this extra work. But despite all of the obstacles to growing this prince of the apples, we still do it. Why? Because we love the taste and crunch just like you do. And when it turns out right there is nothing that compares!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Dog days of Summer

Looking outside tonight the lawn and the soybean field behind it are sparkling with fireflies. Its a spectacular light show! Sort of like a miniature 4th of July celebration. I’ve never seen so many! The warm weather makes the night insects really active this time of year. The windshield on your car will attest to that!

The heat seems relentless these days.They call these the “Dog Days” of summer. I always thought it was because the dog would just lay around in the heat of the day, but apparently  the saying has a little more science than that. Sirius, the dog star rises into the visible sky at this time of year, and that coincides with the hottest weeks of the summer. Who knew?? It is hard to do outdoor work in this weather. I think we should just call them “Fishing Days” and be done with it!

We do a lot to keep tabs on the insect populations in our orchards. It is important to know what bugs are out there, and what they are doing at any given time. So we have different traps for different insects scattered around throughout the farm. And every week it’s somebody’s job to check them and report the findings back to us. Michigan State University’s Extension Agents are a big part of the picture too. They keep us informed as to what insects are coming and going, what kind of damage they do, and how to keep track of them. If we find something out of the ordinary, they can usually identify it for us. All of this information helps us to make informed decisions about control measures we can take and when to act. There are even good bugs, that help us by preying on the bad bugs that do damage to our fruit. Here are some of the different traps we use. Each is for a specific insect. From left to right: Codling Moth, Apple Maggot, Brown Marmorated Stink Bug.

Coldling moth trap Apple maggot trap BMSB trap

Last week my brother sent me a pic of a scary looking insect.”They  look like huge wasps and they are coming out of the ground!” he texted. I didn’t know what they were either, so I forwarded it on to Amy Irish-Brown, my local MSU extension agent. She is a wiz at identifying this kind of thing. Sure enough, within a minute I got my answer. “It’s a Cicada Killer.” she replied. “They won’t bite humans, but they work in the ground laying eggs in Cicada larvae there” Amazing stuff!

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Cicada Killer

Sometimes things show up that confound us. Last week Travis came into the house and announced: “There’s a Pokemon in the backyard!” I didn’t know how to react. “Do I spray for it or do I  shoot it?” I asked him. It seems the Pokemon Go people chose to make  a checkpoint out of our walnut tree. That would explain why kids kept wandering into our yard staring at their phones. And cars would stop in front of the house or in our driveway, sit there for a few minutes and then drive away. At any time day or night! I guess we never know who might show up on the farm, but it’s not for lack of trying!

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker