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 now 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

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

Trimming the trees

It’s a new year, and just like that we go back to winter with a vengeance! But it is, after all, January in Michigan-what do we expect? This time of year things on the farm have slowed down a lot. The holidays are over, the bakery is closed, and we have only a few weeks worth of apples left to sell. So now our focus turns to the annual task of pruning (trimming) apple trees.

There is an old story that when Michelangelo finished his famous statue of David an amazed patron asked “How do you create such a fine work of art?” His answer? “I just chip away everything that doesn’t look like David!” While this story may or may not be true, It comes to mind when someone asks me “How do you know which limbs to cut off and which to leave?” Well there are methods and some rules of thumb to abide by, but some of is just that I kind of know what I want the tree to look like when I’m finished. If I lined up 5 of my fruit growing friends and all looked at the same tree, we probably would not all make the same cuts. That’s because we all have a different picture in our heads of what the finished product should look like!

The older plantings on our farm are pruned in more traditional ways. Free-standing trees, with strong main branches are maintained by removing the yearly “sucker” growth. “Suckers” are  the thin, upright sprouts with no fruit buds on them. Occasionally a large limb is removed in favor of a younger fruiting branch. Outsides and tops are cut back to contain the tree to it’s space and the branches are thinned to let sunlight in. This process is accomplished by riding in a self propelled trimming machine equipped with hydraulic saw and lopper. The driving and moving side to side and up and down are all done with levers run by my feet. This leaves my hands free to use the pruning tools and make the needed cuts. After years of running this machine, I rarely think about the driving part, my feet just do the task subconsciously. Up one side of the row and down the other, hour after hour, day after day.

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Newer plantings are an entirely different animal though. While some of the same principles are applied, These trees will have no permanent limbs. Every year we remove 2-4 of the biggest limbs, leaving a stub that hopefully will send out a new branch the following summer. In this way, the apples are always growing on young, healthy branches and older wood is constantly being replaced. The trees are kept very narrow so that sunlight can penetrate the entire tree from all sides. I’m still getting used to this newer method and it takes a little more thought for me, probably because I’ve been doing it the old way for so long!

So how do I keep from getting bored during the seemingly endless hours or trimming? Well I do have to pay attention to what I am doing, but I often have music or a podcast going in my ears as background noise. My phone is set for hands free calling too, so I can make or answer calls without missing a snip! Technology is great!

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So even during the heart of winter we are trying to …

Have a fruitful day!

Tom Moelker