Apples are measuring up!

So the bloom is finished, and the bees have moved on to their next jobs on other farms. The apples are growing larger every day. But if all the blossoms on an apple tree turn into apples, the tree would never be able to support them all! And the resulting crop would look like bushels and bushels of little red golf balls!

Some of the blossoms, however did not get pollinated. So those will not turn into apples. Some may have winter or spring cold weather damage and will not develop. And sometimes the tree, knowing how many apples it is carrying by sensing the volume of a hormone produced by each apple seed, will abort some of the apples in order to survive. (See my prior blog on Gibberellins). If left alone, apple trees will often have a big crop one year and a small or no crop the next. We growers realize that in order to have a decent crop year after year, we have to try to smooth out that cycle to have a moderate crop every year.

There is a short window of opportunity after bloom in which we can help the tree cast off some of it’s fruit if it is carrying too much. But at that point, we still don’t know just which fruits are going to continue and which will stop and fall off. That’s where apple measuring comes into play. For several years now, my daughters, Tressa and Taylor, have taken on the task of measuring fruitlets every three days over this period. First they mark 75 fruits on each of 5 trees in each orchard that we are tracking.

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Blue ribbons mark each cluster of apples.
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Each cluster is numbered, and each apple as well

Then they measure each fruit with a digital calipers and record the data.

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It is a time consuming task, repeated every 3 days in each variety that we want data on.

The data is entered into an Excel spreadsheet program. After 3 or 4 sets of data have been entered, we can crunch the numbers and the program will tell us which fruits are growing and which are slowing down and are going to eventually stop. This is a huge help to us in determining the eventual size of the coming crop, and with this information we can decide whether to leave the tree alone or to “help” it to cast off some of it’s fruit. We can do that by applying some products that stress the tree slightly so that it will decide it can’t carry quite so much. The tree will then kick some more fruit off and help regulate the crop.

The process isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are many other factors involved; tree health, weather, and previous year’s crop all play a role in the big picture of crop size and the response that we may get when we try to”help” the trees. But the many hours of work and thousands of measurements that these girls take are an invaluable resource for us, making a difficult decision making process more precise. Hats off to them!!

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My measuring crew, Tressa and Taylor!

Just another example of how technology and hard work are changing farming for the better!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker    tompic

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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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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