Picky, Picky!

Apple harvest is in full swing! Our days are filled with keeping our workers supplied with apples to pick, and apple bins to put them in. Then our evenings are spent putting the bins into cold storage, or getting them ready to truck away to wholesale customers. It’s a busy time of year!

Every apple harvested on our farm is picked by hand. There are no machines as of yet to take over that task. It’s hard work. A good apple picker can harvest 150 bushels of fruit in a day! And at 42 pounds per bushel, well, you do the math. As we go through the fall, we work our way through the many varieties that we grow. Each ripens at it’s own time, beginning with Lodi in late July, and ending with Granny Smith around November 1st. In between over twenty other varieties are harvested when ready. Some are picked just one time, harvesting all of the fruit at once. Others, like Honeycrisp, are picked over several times, taking just the ripest, most highly colored fruit each time.

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Another Honeycrisp novelty is the fact that when picking, we clip short the stem on every apple. It is a time consuming task, but worth the extra time and money. Honeycrisp have a very tender skin, and often, a long pokey stem that will damage the apple next to it when placed in a bin. Damaged apples lose a lot of value in the marketplace, so we do whatever we can to prevent that. Our workers carry a small stem clipper strapped to their index finger. Once picked, the stem is quickly snipped off and the apple placed into the picking bag that each worker carries. Over the course of a day the process is repeated thousands of times! The bag is slung over the shoulders and holds about 30 pounds of fruit when full. These people are professionals!

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Our apples go to many different places in the fall. Many are sold right from our market to customers who visit us. Some are used in our bakery for pies, breads, and dumplings. Much of the crop goes to packing facilities that package and sell the fruit for us to grocery chains. Some of the apples go to Nestle (Gerber) to be processed into baby food. Others go for fresh slices or cubes sold to the fast food industry for salads or packaged fresh apple slices. Still others are sliced and frozen for pie companies. Each apple has a purpose and a place to go!

So this is “crunch time” (pun intended). We begin the day before sunrise, and often end after sunset. We pray for good weather, fret when rain stops our harvest, and then remember that all of this is in the hands of One who knows exactly what we really need. And that is the best place there is for our harvest to be!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker     tompic

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Grafting

So a while back in my blog I mentioned that we would be doing some grafting, changing some apple trees from one variety to another. We did this task on this past Tuesday. In this blog, I’ll show you how this type of grafting works!

The process actually began back in February when we collected dormant shoots from our then-sleeping trees. This wood must be kept dormant, so we store it in refrigeration until it’s time to graft.  The shoots are then trimmed into little sticks, called “scions”, about 3-4 inches long with two buds on each stick.

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Trimming the “scions”

The scions are then trimmed on one end to expose the different layers of the wood from the outer bark down to the inner wood. They are kind of paired down on two sides to form a wedge.

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Then a cut is made into the trunk of the host tree with a sharp grafting knife. These knives are extremely sharp and sturdy.  The cut that is made is very precise and designed to accept the scion stick with it’s trimmed end. The scion is inserted into the cut, lined up so that the bark tissues are together, and pressed tight.

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The grafted area is then wrapped tight with tape or elastic plastic to keep the tissues secure and in place. Then the area is painted with a wax based product that seals the cuts up . This will keep disease and insects out while keeping the tree tissue clean and the moisture in.

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During this work the scions and the trunk cuts cannot be allowed to dry out at all, so time is of the essence. The professionals that did this work for us can perform the whole process in a matter of seconds! Each person on the crew has a specific job to do, and it is replicated thousands of times in a day. At our farm on Tuesday, they grafted 1,250 trees in just a few hours! Then on to the next farm.

Here I’ve linked a short video of Robbi VanTimmeren, who leads this dedicated grafting crew, performing a graft on one of our trees. Even though she slowed it down some for us, it goes quickly so you may have to watch it more than once! Notice that every action is performed with exacting precision. She makes a difficult task look much easier than it really is.

In the weeks ahead I’ll keep you posted on the progress these trees are making. The goal is that hopefully that little scion that we put in place this week will eventually take over and become the new tree, changing these trees from Red Delicious over to Honeycrisp! In the meantime…

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

Planning to plan…

Well I guess we don’t have to worry about spring coming early this year! We may have to worry about it coming at all?! I was at a grower meeting this morning where we talked about the weather. Farmers do that. It was pointed out that as of February 1 our temperature accumulations were about 19 days ahead of normal. And now, six weeks later temps are running 19 days behind normal. That’s a 38 day swing! How do we make plans when things can change so drastically? Answer? Relax and roll with it. We can’t change the weather, no matter how much we worry about it!

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Sometimes no matter how much we plan, things don’t turn out the way we think they are going to. Travis and I spent much of the last 2 days preparing 1,200+ young trees for grafting in a few weeks. These trees were planted in 2015, and have not grown as well as we expected. They had a hot ride from the nursery on the west coast back when we received them, and much of the wood had heat stress damage. We planted them, knowing that they might not perform as well as we hoped(planned?) The other factor that played into our decision to change the trees, was that the variety that we had selected when we ordered the trees back in 2012 is now falling out of favor with consumers. So what to do? We have decided to change the trees over to Honeycrisp apples by grafting a Honeycrisp bud onto the existing tree, and starting over. Since the trees are already in place and have a decent root system, we hope to convert this part of the orchard over to a more popular variety and give these trees an new lease on life!

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We have removed the branches from one side of each tree to make room for a new bud to be added! That way it won’t have competition.

Grafting is a delicate art. It is the process of taking part of one plant and marrying it to another similar plant in order that it can continue it’s life there. In a few weeks we will be joined by an experienced crew of tree grafters to accomplish the first steps of this task. The complete transformation will take a few years, but we think our plan will be worth all the work and the wait. I’ll be sure to show you more of the process when we begin, and keep you updated from time to time on the progress of this project.

Here is another plan-buster. In this same orchard are rows of Gala apples. And every so often we find a tree that is definitely not a Gala. It’s like that old “One of these things is not like the others” song from “Sesame Street”. You can see it in the picture below. So we will be grafting these trees over to be Galas like the rest.

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On the left is a Gala tree, On the right? Who knows!
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Cutting back a “Who knows what?” tree

So while our best laid plans don’t always turn out the way we think, we will adjust and keep working toward our goals. Who knows what will change in the meantime? But it will all work out. At least that’s my plan! 🙂

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

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

A honey of an apple-part 1.

Honeycrisp. The very name makes your mouth water! That crunchy, juicy explosion of flavor is unmatched by any other apple. It’s popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade. And we hear the question over and over again, “When will the Honeycrisp be in?”

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Well they are in. We began to pick them last weekend. And they are as great as ever! But this apple, that has become the favorite of many of our customers, took a long time to come to the table. Believe it or not, the Honeycrisp apple was developed at the University of Minnesota in 1960! And at one point over the following years it was almost discarded. In 1974 it was finally given a name, “Minnesota 1711”, and given the go-ahead for further testing. Fourteen years later it was finally patented and named “Honeycrisp”, and the trees became available for the first time in 1991. That’s 31 years after it was first discovered!!

In 1995 a fruit tree salesman that I knew well stopped in one day. “Tom there’s a new apple available and you need to have some on your farm” he said. Honeycrisp? I had never heard of it before. “What does it taste like?” I asked him. “It isn’t the taste,” he said. “It’s the texture and the juice running down your chin when you bite it!” He assured me it was unlike any apple I had ever had. I ordered 100 trees for the following spring. Four years later we picked the first fruit. They were awesome! But how would we introduce  people to them? Only one way to do that. Hand them one and have them try it. They were a hit!

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Honeycrisp
So just why are they so juicy? Because the cells in a Honeycrisp apple are almost twice as big as cells in any other apple! That makes the texture and juiciness stand out above all the others. And the sweet yet tangy flavor is great too! I often think that no two taste alike. And they stay crisp and juicy even on your kitchen counter(although refrigeration is recommended).

So that’s a little history on what has become our most popular apple. Next week, I’ll tell you a little about the challenges that come with growing Honeycrisp apples. And try to answer the question, “Why do they cost so much?”

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker