Just Peachy!

It’s peach season. That wonderful time of year when the fresh, juicy, and somewhat fragile fruit is at it’s best. When you get past the fuzziness, it is hard to beat the sweet yet tangy flavor of a peach! And the juice! It just runs down your chin! Oft times the most delectable foods are messy.

If you love peaches, and you have for years, you know the name Red Haven is the king of peaches here in Michigan. Since it was introduced in 1940, this flavorful peach has been the favorite of families year after year. Over the years a whole family of “Haven” peaches were introduced in our state.  The original Red Haven was developed at the Michigan State University Experiment Station at South Haven. Hence the name. I can remember  our farm growing many of them. Kal Haven, Hale Haven, Sun Haven, Rich Haven, Fair Haven, Crest Haven, Jay Haven, and Glo Haven peaches have grown on this farm over the years. Each of these varieties, while sharing the “Haven” name, were a little different  from the others. Some were early, some were mid-season, and some were late. All of them had great flavor and were “freestone”–the pit came away from the flesh easily. Most of those varieties have long been gone, but the Red Haven, once the most widely planted peach worldwide, is still the one every other peach is compared to.

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Hauling peaches in the 1930’s

I can remember why some of those varieties went away. Hale Haven, while a tasty peach, always fell off the tree the day before you picked them it seemed. Rich Haven and Sun Haven were as big as softballs, and seemed to ripen in the basket on the trip from the orchard to the house. They would be round when you picked them, and square when you got them home. Others, like Glo Haven and Crest Haven are good peaches that are still grown today. Unlike many other fruits, peaches have to be picked over 3 to 5 times, each time selecting the ripest fruits. That means going over the orchard every 2-3 days. It can be a hot, sticky and fuzzy job in the month of August! We are usually happy to begin peach picking season, and even happier to be finished with it!

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Hauling peaches today!

Michigan has always been kind of a hotbed of peach variety development. In recent years, whole families of peach varieties have been introduced. Paul Friday’s “Flamin’ Fury series boasts over 20 kinds of peaches that ripen over a 15 week long season in Michigan! Paul’s cousin Jim and his family have introduced the Stellar Series of peach varieties, over a dozen kinds whose names all end in “Star”(Glowingstar, for example). All of these great peaches are now available worldwide! And it all began in little old Michigan.

It is interesting how different states have different varieties of peaches. If you go to Georgia, for example, you will not recognize most of the kinds of peaches grown there. Names like “O’Henry”, “Cary Mac”, and “Rich Lady”. Really? Sounds funny to me. “I’d like a half bushel of those Rich Ladies!” Might be a good reason to get slapped! California and New Jersey also have entirely different kinds of peaches than what we have here. In fact, those three states, along with South Carolina, are the top peach growing states in America. While very few of those varieties are grown in Michigan, our state’s varieties are grown in many of the other states. While we don’t boast the big numbers, Michigan has a big influence with our research and development.

So with all of that peachy info, it’s time to get out there and enjoy! Because as summer slips toward fall, the season for this amazing fruit will slip away too. And there is nothing like a fresh peach sliced over ice cream on a warm August evening! Or a fresh warm slice of peach pie(also with ice cream, of course!)

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Have a fruitful (and peachy) 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

 

Hot or cold? Wet or dry?

Well August is being August, hot and muggy, just like July left off! It seems this has been an endlessly warm and humid summer and the forecast doesn’t change much. “What does that do to the fruit?” I’m often asked. “Makes it warm!” is my smart-alecky answer. But seriously folks, it does have it’s effects. A dry summer (which we had up until the last couple weeks) makes fruit sweeter by concentrating the sugars in the fruit.I can attest that cherries and peaches have been fabulous this season! Lots of rain close to harvest can cause fruit to crack open, most often in cherries but also in some varieties of apples. Hot temperatures (90 and up) and a blistering sun can actually sunburn some kinds of apples and do a lot of damage. Some of our favorites like Honeycrisp, Zestar! and Cameo are especially susceptible to that. And we don’t have to even get into what hail and wind can do. We were blessed to not be affected by all of the tornado action last week. But it wasn’t far away, and you can imagine what that would do to an orchard full of fruit! It does remind us what a tentative hold we have on things.

apples in sunshine

 

One thing that we look for in the fall are cool nights and sunny days. They are so important to the coloring process in apples. As apples approach maturity, they begin to develop their characteristic color. Cool nights turn on that “switch” in an apple.  You can literally see the change in color in some apples after one or two cool nights, and a week of nights in the upper 40’s will turn a green apple to dark red. We had two nights in the low 50’s over the weekend, and the change was noticeable, especially in Galas and Paulareds. But now it’s back to hot days and warmish nights again deterring that color development. So we wait, and hope that the cool crisp nights of fall are not too far away. I know…it’s still August and summer isn’t over yet so I have to be patient. It will come in time, and I’ll enjoy putting a sweatshirt on in the morning. Until then, it’s shorts and a t-shirt and off to work!

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Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

The calm before the storm.

That is what we always call the last week or two before peaches begin. We have a “shower” of customers during cherry season for a week or two. Then a “sprinkle” during Lodi apple season. But once peaches begin, my family knows that the “storm” won’t let up until November. In fact, it intensifies with every new week as more varieties of fruit become ready for harvest.

Don’t get me wrong. We are still very busy this time of year with tree training, summer pruning, and a myriad of daily tasks that point toward harvest time. Plenty of weeding and feeding, repairing and preparing for the upcoming busy season. Maybe even a few days away to mentally relax and prepare for it too! And like a much appreciated rain after a long period of drought, we do also look ahead with anticipation to the fall season. Because while it is crazy busy for us here in the fall, it is also a blessing to us. We see the culmination of all of our work. While that can be what we expected, or sometimes not at all so, it all is a gift to us that we have to appreciate.

Much like the gift of the rains we received last weekend. It is amazing to see the plants and trees that have long looked weary with the heat and drought perk up and green up within hours of that ample watering. I mentioned in a response to a comment on last week’s blog that God can do in a few hours of rain what takes us weeks. That is exactly what happened on Sunday morning! The 2 inches of rain we received would have taken us 2 weeks to apply with our drip irrigation system! What a blessing!

So good things come to us in many shapes and forms. The tired satisfaction of a hard day’s work. A cold glass of lemonade on a steaming hot day(we’ve seen a lot of those lately!). A soft renewing rain on a parched field or orchard that has been thirsty for weeks. And our family, busily working in anticipation of the coming “storm”, knowing that the fall harvest frenzy will soon be upon us. But also knowing that we have been down this road before, and together we will be able to do it again.

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Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Dog days of Summer

Looking outside tonight the lawn and the soybean field behind it are sparkling with fireflies. Its a spectacular light show! Sort of like a miniature 4th of July celebration. I’ve never seen so many! The warm weather makes the night insects really active this time of year. The windshield on your car will attest to that!

The heat seems relentless these days.They call these the “Dog Days” of summer. I always thought it was because the dog would just lay around in the heat of the day, but apparently  the saying has a little more science than that. Sirius, the dog star rises into the visible sky at this time of year, and that coincides with the hottest weeks of the summer. Who knew?? It is hard to do outdoor work in this weather. I think we should just call them “Fishing Days” and be done with it!

We do a lot to keep tabs on the insect populations in our orchards. It is important to know what bugs are out there, and what they are doing at any given time. So we have different traps for different insects scattered around throughout the farm. And every week it’s somebody’s job to check them and report the findings back to us. Michigan State University’s Extension Agents are a big part of the picture too. They keep us informed as to what insects are coming and going, what kind of damage they do, and how to keep track of them. If we find something out of the ordinary, they can usually identify it for us. All of this information helps us to make informed decisions about control measures we can take and when to act. There are even good bugs, that help us by preying on the bad bugs that do damage to our fruit. Here are some of the different traps we use. Each is for a specific insect. From left to right: Codling Moth, Apple Maggot, Brown Marmorated Stink Bug.

Coldling moth trap Apple maggot trap BMSB trap

Last week my brother sent me a pic of a scary looking insect.”They  look like huge wasps and they are coming out of the ground!” he texted. I didn’t know what they were either, so I forwarded it on to Amy Irish-Brown, my local MSU extension agent. She is a wiz at identifying this kind of thing. Sure enough, within a minute I got my answer. “It’s a Cicada Killer.” she replied. “They won’t bite humans, but they work in the ground laying eggs in Cicada larvae there” Amazing stuff!

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Cicada Killer

Sometimes things show up that confound us. Last week Travis came into the house and announced: “There’s a Pokemon in the backyard!” I didn’t know how to react. “Do I spray for it or do I  shoot it?” I asked him. It seems the Pokemon Go people chose to make  a checkpoint out of our walnut tree. That would explain why kids kept wandering into our yard staring at their phones. And cars would stop in front of the house or in our driveway, sit there for a few minutes and then drive away. At any time day or night! I guess we never know who might show up on the farm, but it’s not for lack of trying!

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

What’s a Gibberillin?!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how rain could be detrimental to the cherry crop as it neared harvest. I’m happy to say that our cherries turned out to be beautiful! I can’t remember the last time we had such quality and flavor. What a blessing!

It is dry though. The absence of rain over the last weeks, while helping the cherries, has put a strain on other crops. Thankfully we have installed drip irrigation on many  of our orchards over the last few years. This is  a real lifesaver in a dry season. The small trees that we plant these days also have very small root systems. They can’t go out and search for water like the big root systems that the big old trees of the past could. So we have to bring the water to them.And drip irrigation is the most efficient way to do that. The water is deposited directly onto the root area of the tree with very little loss to evaporation. This makes fore a happy tree, even in these dry times!

Irrigation line in row.

Irrigation line in apple row.

Why is this so important? The most obvious answer is of course that the trees can produce a nice crop of fruit this year. But there is another aspect to all of this that isn’t as well known. You see, right now the apple trees are planning for next year’s crop. This is the time of year when apple trees are making the buds that will bloom next spring and become the crop for next year. And believe it or not, the trees are making a decision about how big next year’s crop will be! Not of course in the way that we make decisions, but in an equally complicated way. The seeds in every apple on a tree are sending chemical messages to the tree itself about how big the crop is. The chemicals produced by the seeds are called Gibberillins, and they are plant hormones. The tree takes this information and “decides” if it can safely bring this amount of fruit to maturity without becoming stressed  and depleting all of it’s energy. If the tree is under drought stress, it will “decide” to not make many buds for next year because it will see tough times ahead.  If a tree is healthy and well supplied with water and nutrients, it will make a full crop of buds for next year’s crop.

Next year's apple bud.

Next year’s apple bud!

That is why being able to keep a tree happy during dry times is so important. Not only for this year, but for next year too. And while I have sort of put this in human terms, this process really is happening right now in our apple trees. The trees really are planning ahead for next year! And we are trying to keep them healthy and strong so they can make buds for next year. And just in case you wives are wondering, Gibberillins won’t work on your husbands to make them better planners. If they did, I wouldn’t be waiting until Wednesday night each week to write the Thursday morning blog!

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Life is a pail of cherries…

Cherry season is here. For me, cherry season has always marked the middle of summer. Now on our farm we grow mostly sweet cherries. Black, yellow and red. They are fun to pick and yummy to eat. Each color has a little different flavor. And the season goes fast!

Back when I was a kid, and even before that, my dad grew a lot of tart cherries. Acres of them! And when it came time to pick them, he hired kids from the area to do the work. Not a lot of requirements to work at our farm back then. As long as you were 12 years old or older you had the job. A simple job really, just show up by 7:30 am and usually we were finished for the day by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. And in between you had to pick cherries, lots and lots of them if you could. Some kids were really fast pickers. Some were so slow that it seemed they hardly moved. And as the day went on it usually got hot and sticky. They worked on ladders and rode on a farm wagon to the orchard. Apparently OSHA had not been invented yet. The kids were a sweaty sticky, cherry juice mess when they left for home each day.

Tart Cherries

Tart Cherries

There were distractions too. Hard to avoid when you put 25-35 teenage boys and girls together day after day. Lots of teasing and chatter. Cherry orchard romances. And cherry fights, messy, sticky, juicy wars that usually ended with my dad’s stern “OK that’s enough of that!” Best not get caught by Mr. Moelker! We would laugh when somebody’s mom put a cherry jam sandwich in their lunch, or gave them cherry Kool aid to drink for the day. What was she thinking?! I still wonder today if the moms did it by mistake or were  just getting a little revenge!

Over the years from the 1960’s to the mid 80’s, hundreds of local kids had their first job picking cherries at Moelker’s. For a couple of weeks each summer they shared a common purpose, or for some, a common misery. I still run into them, some now in their 60’s. And they say with a smile on their face, “I used to pick cherries here when I was a kid! I remember when…”, and they break into a story that we both laugh about! It’s amazing how time changes our perspective.  I suspect that even some of you reading this may have enjoyed that character building experience known as “Cherry season” when you were a kid. If so, let us know! Please comment on this blog. We would love to hear from you!

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Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Weather, or not.

I’m sitting here on a still evening. It’s the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. A big, full “Strawberry moon” rising in the hazy eastern sky. A warm quiet night awaits. And yet I’m thinking about what insects are developing in this heat, how much water to put on the trees with irrigation, and what the chances for rain are this week. Why? Because the weather, past present and future is such a big part of everyday life to a farmer.

There are many variables that a tree fruit grower has to deal with every day. Varieties and root stocks, diseases and fertilizers, insects and pruning and the list goes on and on. Over the years growers and researchers cooperate to find the best ways to deal with the challenges we face and standardize our growing systems and practices. We share information with growers around the world, and they do the same. And it makes us all better at what we do. But the one wild card that we have no control over is the weather.

That is probably a good thing. If you talk to 5 farmers growing 5 different crops you will hear that it is too dry, too wet, too hot, too cold, and probably too …fill in the blank! And the funny thing is, they are probably all right! Every crop has different needs. An inch of rain would be great right now for the apples pears, and peaches. But sweet cherries, that are about a week away from being ready, would be in great danger of cracking as they absorbed water faster than their skins could expand. Talk about internal conflict! That same inch of rain would be a welcome relief to a corn or soybean grower. But a wheat farmer wouldn’t be too happy with it as harvest begins. What to do?

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So I guess it is a good thing that we don’t control the weather. We just learn to deal with whatever comes our way and trust that God will give us what we need. That is really all we can ask for in life anyway. And that is also  a good thing to think about on a warm summer evening.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Man vs Wild–Orchard style

“The birds are in the cherries again. Your father says its personal this time!”  If you have seen the commercial about the squirrels, you know what I’m talking about. I can’t even tell you what the commercial is for, but I laugh every time I see it. Except birds and cherries are no laughing matter.

For as long as I can remember, birds and cherries have been a bad combination. You see, sweet cherries are a gourmet meal for hungry flocks of birds. But the devastation they can do to a cherry crop in short order hits a cherry grower right where it hurts, in the wallet! Seeing clusters of beautiful cherries reduced to pecked up cherry mash can make a grown man cry, or at least get angry and frustrated.

When I was a kid my dad gave me a BB gun and sent me out to eliminate the problem. I think he knew I wasn’t much of a threat to the bird population at that age. But having a person spend the day wandering around the orchard was a deterrent in itself. I thought I was protecting the crop, and I probably was. Just not in the way I imagined. Later he bought a propane fueled cannon. The noise was deafening every time it fired! It worked at first. The birds would fly out of the orchard like they were on fire with each “BANG”! But after a while either the birds did become deaf, or they just got used to it. I would flinch every time it went off. The birds, not so much.

Propane cannon

Propane cannon

These days we have more technology to help us. Scare-eye balloons suspended above the orchard give the birds the feeling they are being watched by something much bigger than they are. It makes them nervous.

Scare-eye Balloon

Scare-eye balloon

But what really helps today are the recorded bird distress calls that we broadcast through the orchard. When Joe Starling comes flying into the trees with his heart set on a cherry delight, he hears something that strikes fear in his cherry loving heart. The recorded sound of a starling screaming in wounded terror! Just like that, Joe turns tail and flies out of there! Or he may hear the sound of a Cooper’s Hawk looking for a starling dinner. We have sounds for 5 or 6 birds that are our biggest pests. They aren’t foolproof. Hunger outweighs fear for some of the birds. But at least it helps the problem.

Broadcast speaker

Broadcast speaker

We can’t stop the pesky birds entirely. But we try to limit the damage, and in a few weeks we hope to have cherries ready for harvest. They will get some. Hopefully we will get more!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Itching to grow big peaches!

Wow! What a change in the weather! Seems like we went from spring to the dog days of summer in just a few days. One weekend we had snow on our blossoms, and the next it was almost 80 degrees! I don’t know who was more confused, me or the fruit trees.

All of this warm weather has brought us to the point where we soon will begin peach thinning season. Let me explain. Peach trees love to bear fruit. I mean they really love to bear lots of fruit. So much fruit that if we would leave it all on the tree, it would break down. And barring a frost, they will do this every year. Not only that, but the peaches would end up being the size of golf balls when they were ready to pick. Not good for us, and not good for you! And the only way to remedy this situation is to remove some of the fruit. Where there can be up to a dozen fruits on a foot-long branch, we have to bring that down to 2 or 3. That means removing up to 80% of the peaches in some cases! While that sounds simple enough, it takes a long time on each tree and it is best done by hand. And therein lies the problem.

spring peaches

Two truths emerge when we begin peach thinning season. One: Peaches are very fuzzy. And two: No matter what the weather has been recently, the beginning of this job will bring on the most hot and humid weather of the early summer. And lest I forget, there will be no breeze anywhere near the orchard! Those two facts combine to make a tedious job downright miserable. Imagine a hot sweaty day combined with an abundance of itchy fuzz. The stuff is everywhere! It comes off and sticks to your hands, and it literally floats in the air around you as you work. I remember my dad always wearing a long sleeved shirt in the heat of June while thinning peaches. I wondered why, until I was old enough (or gullible enough) to join the peach thinning crew. I soon learned that when thinning peaches, you never touch or scratch or rub your skin anywhere with those fuzz-laden hands! Scratch your neck or arm and the stuff would drive you crazy for the rest of the day! And once you started itching it just got worse and worse. Imagine rolling around in some of that pink house insulation in your bathing suit on a hot summer day! Peach thinning is not for sissies.

Peaches!

So think of us in the next few weeks when the weather will get (inevitably) hot and sticky. And when you are slicing those big juicy peaches over ice cream in August, remember that getting them that way is not just a walk in the park. Its an itch in the orchard!

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker