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

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What’s next?

Well the harvest is in, and things around the farm have settled down from the peak frenzy of October. Overall this season went well. We had a good harvest crew, and with the dry fall we were able to stay on track as the apples matured–no rain days to put us behind! It always is a good feeling to have the crop tucked away inside the coolers.

But while the pace slows down some, there is still a lot of work to be completed before winter sets in. Everything needs to be mowed to reduce the hiding places of tree-nibbling mice and rabbits. Weed spray will help that too. Tree trellis wires need to be checked and tightened after a heavy crop load has weighed them down. Equipment maintenance that may have been put off during the business of harvest now has to be taken care of. We have to winterize all of the irrigation lines and wells before freezing temps set in. Ladders, apple boxes and picking equipment all have to be gathered up and stored away for the winter. And the buildings on the farm need to be cleaned up and reorganized after a hectic fall’s work. My son Travis is good at that. I’m more of a “toss is aside, we’ll deal with it later” kind of guy. He likes to have things organized. Maybe that’s why I’m always asking him where things are!

The trees need attention too. After working so hard and using up so much energy to produce a nice crop, we give them a good foliar nutrient mix to perk them up before winter. We don’t want them to be tired and hungry before going to bed! Another thing that helped the trees during the drought this fall was the irrigation system. I have never watered the trees so late into the fall as I did this season. The lack of rain in August, September and much of October this year had the potential to keep the fruit small, and really stress the trees going into winter. But with the ability to keep the orchards watered we could keep the trees happy through harvest. And then, towards the end of October, we finally got rain! Bunches of it! And the soil soaked it up almost as fast as it came down. What a blessing!

So now that the days are shorter. The sun goes down around dinnertime. The apple crop is in. And we can put another season in the books. It’s funny how when we get to this point, all of the work, all of the troubles, the frost and the drought and the hail that we endured over the course of the season, seem like a distant memory. I guess that is a blessing we can count, along with all of the others that we give thanks for each day.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

“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

 

Christmas reflections

It is just a few days before Christmas. I don’t know why, but this week always marks the passage of a year for me. Even more so than the Old Year’s/New Year’s celebration. The busy Christmas shopping at our market and bakery, the making of fruit baskets, gift baskets, and boxes for shipping, all ends at Christmas Eve. After all the anticipation of the holidays and the frenzy of shopping and shipping deadlines, the last customer has been helped and it seems too quiet, too calm. What lies ahead now is a long winter of tree pruning, a very solitary task.

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I enjoy the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We settle into a holiday season where our usual selling of apples is punctuated by unique requests for special gifts for friends and family, both near and far away. It is fun to interact and imagine someone opening a box of Honeycrisp apples in Texas, or a salsa sampler in Colorado. Or a business associate receiving a gift basket of goodies from the bakery and market. I guess that bringing joy to people is what gives me a lot of satisfaction throughout the season.

When I was young, Christmas was a time of such excitement and anticipation! As a kid I probably didn’t think so much about giving gifts as I did getting them. And it was so fun to get to Christmas day! What would be under the tree? We rarely knew what was coming, and that made it all the more fun! Lincoln Logs, Matchbox cars, or a new Flexible Flyer sled, how much better could it get? Even the new blue jeans, dark, dark blue and so stiff that they would almost stand up by themselves (and abrasive to wear for the first couple weeks!) Winter boots, hats, or mittens were a staple too. And all were thoroughly tested out before the day’s end.

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Now that I am older, I think the giving part is more fun. Maybe that’s why I like to work in the market in December. Whenever someone leaves holding a gift basket or box, I feel a little like I’m giving it too. What fun! Whoever said it more blessed to give than receive was right. And I’ll bet they were older too.

I hope this Christmas is a joyful one for all of you. I hope that whatever your circumstances, you get to treasure time together with family and friends, giving and receiving and sharing with one another. And I hope that together we all celebrate and receive the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. Because besides being the reason we celebrate this time of year, He is the best example of giving and receiving that we could ever have.

Merry Christmas! And have a fruitful week!

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

Varieties-The Spice Of Life

We are picking our first fresh eating apples of the season this week, Gingergold and Paulared. This marks the official start to the fall apple harvest, even though it is still August. It’s good to be able to crunch into a fresh tasty apple right off the tree again! Nothing compares to that!

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Gingergold

As the fall goes on. I often keep track of time by counting how many varieties we have harvested, and how many we have left to go. It seems to start out slowly and pick up the pace with each successive week. We grow 26 different kinds of apples here, and every week I mentally check off the ones we’ve finished and look ahead to whats next. It struck me the other day that while all of our trees blossom over the course of 10 days or so in the spring, the harvest begins with the first apples in late July and ends with the last around November 1. That is over three months difference from the first to the last! How do they know? I purposely planted a row of Lodi (the first ones picked) next to a row of Granny Smith ( the last ones) a few years ago. So when we pick Lodis in July I always look over and wonder what takes those Grannys so long?Another of life’s mysteries I guess.

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Paulared

Apples are pretty amazing really. There are now over 7,500 varieties grown around the world! About a hundred of these are grown commercially in the U.S.A., although thousands of others are grown here too. However the only apples native to this country are crab apples. It is said that the Pilgrims planted the first apple trees in North America. Others were brought here from overseas, or developed here since then. And every year new varieties are created or discovered! It’s hard to keep track of them all, so the best thing to do is find a few you like and stick with them. Until the next one comes along……

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When I was a kid, I can remember dad picking Sweet Boughs, Winesaps, Snow Apples and Grime’s Golden apples. Others too, the names escape me now. Those have come and gone, and been replaced by Gala, Honeycrisp, Zestar!(the exclamation point IS part of the name, really!) and Mutsu. It’s a job just coming up with an original name for an apple these days. But harvest season remains the same. Start with the first ones and work your way through to the last. And along the way, take some time to sample them all fresh from the tree and savor the differences. Because on the journey from blossom to fruit they all develop distinct differences, tastes and qualities. I guess that is true of all of us.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

How good can come from bad.

Sometimes people react to adverse situations in unpredictable ways. In 2012, we lost our entire crop to multiple spring frosts. Some folks would have given up. Some would have taken the opportunity to take a vacation in the summer months for once (unheard of for a fruit farmer). Some might have taken a temporary job. We built a bakery.

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Now this wasn’t completely unplanned. For about 5 years we had talked about doing it someday. And in January, long before the frosts came, we made the decision to go ahead with the project. Later, when the crops froze, it opened up more time for us to work on the project. Funny how providence works sometimes. Over the next few months we began to accumulate some of the bakery equipment that we would need to accomplish our goals.Various pieces came from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and all around the great state of Michigan! As the weeks after the frost went on, two stalls of our then garage were slowly transformed and expanded to become the shell of what was to come–the Old Bell Bakery. With the help of friends and family we completely remodeled the building, adding more storage room and a rest room to our market too. We learned a lot about building, electrical wiring, plumbing  and making things look good (after messing them up the first time)! I think that we took some of it apart and put it back together so many times we could do it in our sleep!

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The girls got some great baking advice and experience from good friend Roger Ondersma, a long time bakery operator. And we got to enjoy a lot of trial runs of cookies, donuts and pastries as they perfected their technics!

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So as we begin our bakery’s fifth year, it’s fun to look back at how it all began. We love the excitement that our customers have about opening up for a new season! And I have to admit that it is nice to be able to pop in for a fresh donut and coffee at break time…or any time for that matter! Not many people can walk across the yard and do that! (all in moderation of course). And this season Tressa has added Grandma M’s Sugar Cookies, a tasty salute to her Grandma Moelker using Donna’s tried and true home made recipe! Looking back now, it’s neat to see how a leap of faith can turn into something wonderful. And how with the support of family, friends and great customers, a dream can become reality.

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A rare photo of Tom and Travis in aprons! With Abby and Tressa

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker