Cold weather work

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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Winter wanderings

Christmas is past and the New Year is fast approaching. As I am writing this, the thermometer reads -4 degrees. Brrrr! We have stopped trimming our trees until it warms up a bit because at these very cold temps the wood around our new cuts can be damaged. It seems we are in for a real winter this year!

While it is cold outside, it is also beautiful. The trees are nicely “frosted” with snow. It is amazing how the orchards are transformed into a winter wonderland overnight! I love how each season brings a different type of splendor to the trees. The blossoms of spring, the fruits of summer, the colors of fall, and now that fairyland of winter snow. Hard to work in, but stunning in its quiet beauty.

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So now we find “inside work”. Repair jobs around the farm and house that have patiently (or not so patiently) waited for me to catch up. Sometimes there are many more important things that push these tasks aside, and sometimes it is just procrastination. Just ask my wife about the coat rack I promised last spring that finally went up on Christmas day! Other fix-its that I planned on when I got around to it. Well the “round tuits” are plentiful in weather like this, so I’ve no excuses now. Tax season will be upon us soon so year’s end is a good time to prepare for that. Going through monthly bills and receipts is like living the year all over again. Some good: “What a great cherry season”! And some, well, not so much. At one point this summer all of my tractors were in the shop for repairs! But as we often say, “That’s farming”. It has it ups and downs just like all of life. The secret is to realize that we aren’t the ones in control here, and that the One who is in control wants only good for us. Once we figure that out, it smooths out the paths we travel on.

And winter is also time to relax and have some fun. It’s funny how weather that is too cold to work in the orchard seems to be fine once you put on a snowmobile suit and helmet. We can ride a couple hundred miles on the trails and have fun in that same weather. Some day I’ll figure out why that is. Something to do with perspective, I’m guessing. It’s like if it is too cold and snowy to have school, why are all the kids playing outside, sledding, building snow forts and having snowball fights? Perspective!

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So with all of that, I’ll wish you a Happy New Year. May you be blessed with ups and downs and most of all, may you realize those blessings.

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

“Red and Yellow, Black and White?”

It’s cherry season again. That wonderful and fleeting time of year when juicy deliciousness can be plucked from a tree! Walking through the orchard today, looking at the crop, I got that old Sunday School song going through my head. And I can’t seem to get rid of it. “Red and Yellow, Black and White. They are precious in His sight…” There. Now it is stuck in your head too!

The song came up because of the different colors of sweet cherries we grow. They are so pretty hanging in clusters on the trees right now. There are black ones, red ones, and yellow ones(that have the name White Gold). That’s where the white comes in. Each one has a distinct flavor that distinguishes it from the others. And that variety makes it fun to mix and match them.

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Cherries are not native to America. So how did they get here? I remember learning about Johnny Appleseed in school, but I don’t recall being taught about Johnny Cherryseed. Must have skipped class that day. Actually, the seeds were brought over from Europe in 1628 to the settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. First planted there, they were brought west as the colonies expanded and eventually made it all the way to the northwest coast, where they flourished.

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Michigan is well known for cherries. It is quite likely that seeds were brought here by French colonists coming through the St. Lawrence Seaway. But however they got here, this state has perfect conditions for growing cherries. Michigan grows about 75% of the nation’s tart cherries, and about 40% of the sweet cherries. In fact, Traverse City is known as the Cherry Capital of the world! And cherries are good for you. They contain lots of anti-oxidants and are helpful in relieving pain and helping you sleep better. All on top of that juicy-licious (is that a word?) taste! The perfect fruit? Maybe!

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Our cherry season begins on Saturday, July 1. If you have never picked a fresh cherry from a tree, you owe it to yourself to experience the fun and flavor. And if you are a cherry picking veteran, well, you know just how delicious they are. The season goes fast, so don’t miss it! I know I’ll eat my share! So come out to the farm in the next couple of weeks and….

Have a FRUITFUL day!

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

 

“Should I stay or should I go?”

That is what the apples and other fruits on our trees are asking lately. Now that the bloom is finished and the fruitlets are growing, we enter a period known to fruit growers by a very technical term:”June drop”.  No, really that’s the name! It is the period which usually occurs in early to mid June, during which the fruits either terminate and fall off, or continue to grow into mature fruit. It occurs in all of the different fruits that we grow.

But how is that decision made? And can we tell exactly which will stay and which will go? Well, eventually we will know what is left, but for now we have some clues that can help us estimate the crop. In an earlier blog I wrote about Gibberilins, those plant hormones that help the apples communicate with the trees, and vice versa. Gibberilins are produced in the seeds of the apple, and the amount of them that are coursing through the tree help the tree “know” how many apples are on it. But not every apple on the tree after bloom has seeds in it. If the blossom wasn’t pollinated or the process didn’t fully complete, the seeds may not have been made. Most times those fruitlets without seeds won’t stay on the tree. Some apples will have just a seed or two on one side. Many times those will fall off too, but if perchance they stay on and grow, they will be misshapen, one side will be bigger than the other.

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Stress plays a role too. Not the stress that us growers are under, but the stress that the trees experience. Stress can be caused by drought, extreme heat, or an excessive number of fruits on the tree. Any of these can cause the tree to compensate by kicking some fruits off so it can better support the ones that are left. That is where the Gibberilins come in.

So how does the crop look this year? Well, we are still waiting for it to sort itself out. Some years what looks like a full crop dwindles greatly during June drop. In other years too many apples stay on and we spend a lot of time thinning them off by hand to improve quality. As you can see in the photos, there are all different sizes on the trees right now. Some smallest ones certainly will fall off by themselves. And the largest, healthiest ones should stay on and grow. But the jury is still out on those middle sized ones. Many of those that we cut open have no seeds, or the seeds are drying up. But others look just fine inside. What are we to do? We wait.

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Different sizes on the trees right now.

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The top 3 have dead or no seeds. Bottom 2 look good!
The same process occurs in our pears, plums and cherries too. Pears are finished and they look good! Cherries and plums are very close to completing the June drop and they look plentiful too. Peaches? They usually need a lot of hand thinning every year. A toilsome task in all it’s fuzziness (also see a earlier blog!). We are thinning peaches now. But apples will be sorting themselves out during the next couple of weeks and asking themselves: “Should I stay or should I go?” Stay tuned and we will all find out!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Cold and sleepless nights…

We had some frosty nights this week that kept us up all night. Sunday night and Monday night were situations that fruit growers dread. When the fruit trees are in full bloom, they are the most susceptible to cold injury. And that was exactly the scenario early this week.

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Cherries on the fringe got singed by the cold!
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But these cherries survived very well!
Temperatures fell into the upper twenties both nights and endangered the delicate flower parts that develop into the fruits we grow. We spent both nights doing all we could to keep the orchards warmer. A degree or two can make all the difference in situations like this. So as the thermometer headed toward the freezing mark, we began fighting off the cold. In our sweet cherry orchards we set up over a dozen wood fueled fires to add heat to the mix. We started our frost fan shortly before midnight each night and it ran for about 8 hours both times. The goal of the fan is twofold. It moved the heat from the fires throughout the orchard. But even without the fires, fans can pull warmer air aloft down and distribute it around its circumference. The fan we have is 23 feet high, so it reaches up for the warmer air. Where does the warmer air come from? During the day the sun warms the soil. As the sun goes down, the colder air aloft settles down toward the ground, and the soil begins to give up its warmth. That warmer air rises and forms a layer on top of the cold settling air. That is the layer we try to mix into the colder surface air. It doesn’t always  work. If there is wind, the layers don’t form and all the air is the same temperature.

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The little peach in the center of this photo looks good! 
Another thing we did to stave off the cold was irrigate. We ran our irrigation system for 2 days prior to the frosty nights, and all night both nights. Since water comes out of the ground at 52 degrees, there is some warmth to be given off as we irrigate. Wet soil can also give off its heat more readily than dry soil, so we try to gain any advantage we can in this way too.

We also pray. A lot. Knowing that whatever happens we will be OK in God’s hands. And knowing that our feeble attempts to alter the weather are no match for His power.

So everybody wants to know, “How did you come through the frost? Did you have a lot of damage?” Well, It is a little early to tell how everything did. It looks as though many of the fruitlets survived. In fact, we are optimistic that we will have a crop at this point. What we don’t know is what the fruits will look like when they are grown. Some scarring and other damage may have occurred, but time will tell. But we feel blessed that we seem to have come through the cold in good shape!

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We cut across the buds to look inside. The apple bud on the bottom is green and alive! The one on top is frozen!
And after a stretch of 60 hours on 5 hours of sleep, Tuesday night had no threat of frost, and a high chance of rest! We took full advantage of that!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker