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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“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

Flower power!

BOOM! “What WAS that?!” A couple of weeks ago that was all the conversation around the area as the mystery explosion was investigated. Turns out it was a bunch of guys shooting at an exploding target at a bachelor party south of here! Hard to believe, I know. 😉

This week we had an explosion here that was much more pleasant. The cherry and plum trees exploded in blossoms with the warm weather over the weekend and into this week! I’ve seldom seen such an abundance of bloom on the cherry trees! And just a few days later the pears burst into full bloom too. The peach trees are full too, and although the flowers on a peach tree are not as showy from a distance, they are quite beautiful up close. Apple bloom always trails the others by a week or so and they are just beginning to open now.

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Cherry blossoms

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Peach blossoms

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Pear blossoms

The bees arrived on Monday night and are already hard at work pollinating the fruit trees. Walking through the cherry orchard there is a distinct “hum” in the air as hundreds of thousands of honeybees go about their business. These bees know their stuff! And they are well traveled too. They winter in Florida pollinating in the citrus groves. At some point the travel to California to the almond orchards to do their work. Then it’s back to Florida again to finish the winter crops. Last week they were loaded on a semi truck and hauled up here to Michigan to move into the apple and cherry orchards. There are six hives on each pallet, and each houses around 25,000 to 35,000 bees this time of year.

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These are truly “migrant” workers! Once the trees fruits are finished blooming, the bees will move into the blueberry fields. They spend the summer here in Michigan and then the cycle starts over again. It never seems to end for these little critters, but they never are as happy as when they can gather pollen and nectar on a warm sunny day. And on a rainy day when they can’t go to work they are ornery. It’s risky to even approach the hives on a day like that!

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Blossom time is always so beautiful here on the farm. The fragrance in the orchard is almost intoxicating. Each type of flower has its own distinct shape, color and aroma. But in spite of the beauty,  the list of tasks is long and demanding at this time of year. The warm Spring has pushed our season ahead of normal by about 2 weeks. We are still finishing our pruning on peaches and cherries, and it is finally drying out enough to work the ground. Soon we will be planting trees. So sometimes when we are so busy we have to be reminded to stop and smell the…blossoms! That’s good advice for everyone.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

This bud’s for you!

After a roller-coaster winter with a warm February followed by a cold March, spring finally showed up last weekend. Apparently the trees were ready, because the bud development over the few warm days was phenomenal! The growing season is off to a quick start. We are about 10 days ahead of normal growth right now. Back in February we were 25-30 days ahead, so the cold March did slow us down!

The fruits we grow on our farm fall into two categories: Pome fruit and Stone fruit. Pome fruits are fruits that have a seed cavity in the center with many seeds. Apples and pears fall into that category. They are generally grown in the same way, and even the wood of the trees is similar. The also are susceptible to many of the same pests and ailments.

The other class, stone fruits, are named such because of the single “stone” (pit) in the center of the fruit. Examples we grow are cherries, peaches and plums. Once again these trees grow and are treated in very similar ways, and have a different array of pests and problems than the pome fruits.

While in the orchards today, I looked at the different buds on the many kinds of fruit trees. On a warm day in the spring you can see the growth changes from morning to evening. Stone fruits generally bloom before pome fruits, and at this point peach and plum buds are already swelled far enough that we can see the outsides of the petals! Each bud is one peach(left) or plum(right) in the making.

 

Cherries are a little less advanced. What looks like a cluster of buds on a cherry limb is actually a cluster of clusters–each bud you see here contains 3-7 actual cherry blossoms. That is why when it’s cherry picking time, they often are hanging in bunches.

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Sweet Cherry buds

Apples(left below) and pears(right below) are set up a little differently. Each fat bud contains 5 individual apple or pear blossoms that are tightly clustered together at first. As the growth progresses they extend on their stems and separate out just before bloom. Right now they are tightly tucked inside a covering of tiny leaves. That serves a some protection against cold nights to come. But the more they advance, the less the protection and more susceptible to frost they become.

You know the saying “April showers bring May flowers”. We might just see some April flowers this year!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

The weather roller coaster…

As I write this, the temperature is 29 degrees and it is snowing like crazy outside. Yet at this time yesterday it was 57 and we were in the middle of a thunderstorm! This has been the pattern over the last few weeks. And we found out today that this February was the warmest on record!

So the questions continue: “What is this doing to the fruit trees?” Well it’s confusing to us for sure, and I’m guessing that the trees are mixed up a little too. In looking at the apple buds day after day, I can see that they have broken out of the dormant stage. The buds on some varieties are in fact quite swollen. If we remain cold for a while the growth should come to a standstill. But with the forecast reaching the upper 50’s for the weekend again, bud development will inch forward again. So how do we know where we should be in a normal weather year? And how do we compare that to where we are now? The answer lies in calculating “degree days”.

In an earlier blog I talked about chilling hours, and how important they are to the fruit growing process. You may recall that calculating chilling hours tells us how far along in the dormancy stage the trees are. But we also calculate “degree days”, and that tells us how the trees are progressing in the growing season. Figuring out degree days is done using a couple different models. For simplicity’s sake we will use the easiest way  which is done by adding the low temperature of the day to the high and dividing by two.

Apple trees grow at 42 degrees and warmer. If the average temperature for the day is above 42, you begin counting degree days. So if the low for the day is 35, and the high is 55, the average is 45 degrees. That gives you 3 degree days for that day (3 degrees above 42). Each day is calculated separately and added to the total.

With years of data in the books we can estimate the number of degree days at which fruit buds are in different stages of growth. For instance, McIntosh buds first start showing green at around 127 degree days.

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So what does all of this mean? Well as of today we have accumulated around 57 degree days. While that is quite far ahead of normal for March 1, we won’t be adding any more for a few days here with the cold weather. But the forecast will add some more this weekend and we will keep adding up the numbers as the days go by. Hopefully we will just creep along over the next weeks and not really blow up our temperatures like we did in 2012. This early warmth will probably move our season ahead of normal some. How much? I guess we will know when we get there! But at this point a week or two earlier than normal is probably a reasonable estimate. But remember, this is Michigan. It could be still snowing in April!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Chillin’ out

With the unseasonable weather we are having, there is one subject that I get asked a lot about lately: “Are the warm temperatures going to hurt the trees? Will they start blooming?” Well the answer is no. But that opens up a complicated and fascinating subject.

When a fruit tree finishes its growing season, it slowly enters the process of dormancy as winter approaches. Temperatures play a large role in this. With the warm fall we had this past year this process was delayed for weeks. But once the trees reached the dormant stage, that’s when the chilling begins.

Fruit trees need a certain number of “chilling hours” in order to rest and prepare for the next season. A chilling hour is defined in different ways. Some of the calculating models say that any temps below 45°F count, but others, oddly enough say that temps below 30°F do not count as chilling hours. Still other models begin at 50°F and below and count any hours above 60°F as subtracting from chilling hours. Confused yet? So am I! (and the trees probably are too!) But it is generally accepted to use temperatures between 32°F and 45°F as satisfying the chilling hour standard. And that is the degree range that is tracked by adding up the hours each day during the winter.

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Different fruits, and even different varieties within a fruit type, have different requirements for chilling hours. Most apples need 700-1000 chilling hours to grow and produce properly. There are exceptions such as Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith which need only 400 -600 hours. That is why those varieties are commonly grown in California. Most peaches need 750-950 hours although again there are some as low as 200 hours. Cherries  need 1000+ chilling hours–ever notice that most are grown in the northern U.S.A.?

So what happens if a fruit tree doesn’t receive enough chilling hours in the winter? Well the tree may produce buds with very weak and uneven blossoms, or it may bloom later and over a wide time period. In severe cases the trees may not bloom at all and have a difficult time producing leaves!

Fortunately here in Michigan we have pretty consistent accumulations of chilling hours year after year. The varieties of fruits that we grow are nicely suited to the chilling hour numbers that we see. If you have ever seen a climate zone map such as those put out by nurseries and seed companies, chilling hours are one factor that goes into determining the the different zones. Want to calculate the chilling hours in your neck of the woods? Here is a place to do that.

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So our fruit trees need some time to just chill out in order to recharge for another growing season. Probably a lesson in there for all of us!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Christmas reflections

It is just a few days before Christmas. I don’t know why, but this week always marks the passage of a year for me. Even more so than the Old Year’s/New Year’s celebration. The busy Christmas shopping at our market and bakery, the making of fruit baskets, gift baskets, and boxes for shipping, all ends at Christmas Eve. After all the anticipation of the holidays and the frenzy of shopping and shipping deadlines, the last customer has been helped and it seems too quiet, too calm. What lies ahead now is a long winter of tree pruning, a very solitary task.

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I enjoy the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We settle into a holiday season where our usual selling of apples is punctuated by unique requests for special gifts for friends and family, both near and far away. It is fun to interact and imagine someone opening a box of Honeycrisp apples in Texas, or a salsa sampler in Colorado. Or a business associate receiving a gift basket of goodies from the bakery and market. I guess that bringing joy to people is what gives me a lot of satisfaction throughout the season.

When I was young, Christmas was a time of such excitement and anticipation! As a kid I probably didn’t think so much about giving gifts as I did getting them. And it was so fun to get to Christmas day! What would be under the tree? We rarely knew what was coming, and that made it all the more fun! Lincoln Logs, Matchbox cars, or a new Flexible Flyer sled, how much better could it get? Even the new blue jeans, dark, dark blue and so stiff that they would almost stand up by themselves (and abrasive to wear for the first couple weeks!) Winter boots, hats, or mittens were a staple too. And all were thoroughly tested out before the day’s end.

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Now that I am older, I think the giving part is more fun. Maybe that’s why I like to work in the market in December. Whenever someone leaves holding a gift basket or box, I feel a little like I’m giving it too. What fun! Whoever said it more blessed to give than receive was right. And I’ll bet they were older too.

I hope this Christmas is a joyful one for all of you. I hope that whatever your circumstances, you get to treasure time together with family and friends, giving and receiving and sharing with one another. And I hope that together we all celebrate and receive the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. Because besides being the reason we celebrate this time of year, He is the best example of giving and receiving that we could ever have.

Merry Christmas! And have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker