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

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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

 

 

 

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