Finally…!

Sunday was a beautiful day. Warm and sunny and just right for taking a walk. In church that morning we sang the song “This is my Father’s World.” It fit the day perfectly. Hard to imagine us singing that a week earlier when everything was canceled due to a snow storm! It just wouldn’t have felt right.

So only a week ago we were walking around in fresh snow. Now the snow is gone, and the fruit buds are beginning to pop! We are seeing the first green leaves just poking out of the apple buds just in the last couple of days. Each of these tiny buds holds the flowers that could develop into 5 apples. And with the warmer weather, I guess they decided it’s time to emerge. It is amazing how those little buds can sit there wrapped up tight all winter, and then with a few warm days flip the switch and poke their little leaves out into the sun. How do they know?

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We are about two weeks behind average  right now, but we will begin to catch up quickly with the warm temperatures forecast for next week. Just in the last week we have gone from 20 days behind to 14 days behind normal!  We are busy pruning cherries and peaches now. Most years we wait to prune them until they begin to grow in the spring. Since they are more tender and sensitive to cold winter temperatures, we want to see which branches and buds are growing and which are not. It is easier to see and remove branches with winter damage that way. We will soon be planting trees as well when the soil is dry enough. When the weather warms up, it seems our “to do” list grows quickly too!

But even though we are really busy, all this week that song has been running through my head. So I’ll put a couple of verses here, and just maybe you will see what I have been seeing all week. In spite of all the work on the farm, Spring is amazing!

This is my Father’s world
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres
This is my Father’s world
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas
His hand the wonders wrought
This is my Father’s world
The birds their carols raise
The morning light, the lily white
Declare their maker’s praise
This is my Father’s world
He shines in all that’s fair
In the rustling grass, I hear Him pass
He speaks to me everywhere
Have a fruitful week!
Tom Moelker
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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

Brushing up on Spring!

Spring has Sprung!! Or at least the calendar says so. The weather has moderated some, although it is still freezing at night, and we still have remnants of snow laying around. Apparently winter isn’t giving up easily this year. Maybe it doesn’t like being told to go home!

Most of our apple and pear trimming is finished. With just a few rows of Fuji and Spy still to go, and some young Pink Lady apple trees that are still hanging on to last year’s leaves.

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Time to prune them, leaves or not!

I guess they aren’t ready to call it spring yet either. We are spending much of this week removing the trimmings from our winter pruning out of the orchards. This dry weather stretch has been helpful, because we can get around the orchards without tearing up the sod with our tractors. Some years that is not the case.

So what do we do with all that brush? Well the younger trees have small prunings that we chop into smithereens and leave right in the orchard. That’s good for putting the nutrients back into the ground. Our chopper has limitations though, so bigger limbs must be removed from the orchard and piled up to be burned.

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That’ll be some big hot dog roast! Whichever way we dispose of the brush, it has to be raked or swept into the center of the rows. And that requires a body and a rake. As kids growing up in the apple business we all knew what Spring Break meant. It meant raking brush. No, not on a beach somewhere in Florida or Mexico. Right here. On the farm. And whether Spring Break was early or late, it always seemed to coincide with…you guessed it…raking brush. Some years were cold and wet. Others were warm-ish and almost pleasant. But the job remained the same. It was always better if we could get some cousins or neighbor kids to help. The monumental task seemed to go faster that way. By the end of the week we were almost looking forward to going back to school!

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This row is raked!

With the brush cleaned up, I like the way the orchard looks in the spring. All the trees standing at attention, poised to begin the growing season.

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A fresh start. A new year. And while we don’t know yet what the season will bring, we are promised that spring will come, growth will begin, and the roller coaster ride to harvest will never be boring or predictable. Unlike raking brush….

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Water, water, everywhere…

Last week I was in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The snow was 3 feet deep, temperatures were in the teens, and Lake Superior was frozen as far as the eye could see. It was a winter wonderland! As we drove home on Saturday evening, we crossed the Mackinaw Bridge at sunset. The Straights of Mackinaw were frozen solid. It was a beautiful sight.

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What a difference a few days and a few hundred miles make! It is officially mud season now on the farm. You know what I mean, the time of year when everywhere you step or drive off-pavement becomes a squishy muddy track. I hate to drive out to work this time of year because every track becomes a puddle when it rains. And the huge rains we just got make the farm look a mess. So now we walk out to the orchard to trim in the interest of preserving the land. Our only fear is getting stuck in the “quicksand” that is springtime in Michigan!

We are pruning young trees now, because the chances of below zero temperatures are less likely. So injury from the cold is less likely too. These small trees can be pruned quickly, but because there are so many more of them per acre it still is a time consuming process. But with a few simple trimming rules the trees can be made very uniform with short small limbs that will bear nice fruit, even in the early years of the tree’s life. Here is a video of Travis pruning some 3 year old apple trees in the snow a couple weeks ago. At least I think it’s Travis, hard to tell behind the cold weather wear!

Hopefully we have some winter weather ahead of us though. I’m not ready for spring to come yet. After all, it’s only February. And it isn’t time for our trees to wake up yet. We fruit growers like for spring to wait a bit and creep up on us slowly. I know you golfers can’t wait to get your sticks out. And you motorcycle riders are anticipating the first warm day for a ride. But if you want to have fresh apples next fall, let’s all be patient and have a normal Michigan spring.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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