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

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Cold and sleepless nights…

We had some frosty nights this week that kept us up all night. Sunday night and Monday night were situations that fruit growers dread. When the fruit trees are in full bloom, they are the most susceptible to cold injury. And that was exactly the scenario early this week.

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Cherries on the fringe got singed by the cold!

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But these cherries survived very well!

Temperatures fell into the upper twenties both nights and endangered the delicate flower parts that develop into the fruits we grow. We spent both nights doing all we could to keep the orchards warmer. A degree or two can make all the difference in situations like this. So as the thermometer headed toward the freezing mark, we began fighting off the cold. In our sweet cherry orchards we set up over a dozen wood fueled fires to add heat to the mix. We started our frost fan shortly before midnight each night and it ran for about 8 hours both times. The goal of the fan is twofold. It moved the heat from the fires throughout the orchard. But even without the fires, fans can pull warmer air aloft down and distribute it around its circumference. The fan we have is 23 feet high, so it reaches up for the warmer air. Where does the warmer air come from? During the day the sun warms the soil. As the sun goes down, the colder air aloft settles down toward the ground, and the soil begins to give up its warmth. That warmer air rises and forms a layer on top of the cold settling air. That is the layer we try to mix into the colder surface air. It doesn’t always  work. If there is wind, the layers don’t form and all the air is the same temperature.

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The little peach in the center of this photo looks good! 

Another thing we did to stave off the cold was irrigate. We ran our irrigation system for 2 days prior to the frosty nights, and all night both nights. Since water comes out of the ground at 52 degrees, there is some warmth to be given off as we irrigate. Wet soil can also give off its heat more readily than dry soil, so we try to gain any advantage we can in this way too.

We also pray. A lot. Knowing that whatever happens we will be OK in God’s hands. And knowing that our feeble attempts to alter the weather are no match for His power.

So everybody wants to know, “How did you come through the frost? Did you have a lot of damage?” Well, It is a little early to tell how everything did. It looks as though many of the fruitlets survived. In fact, we are optimistic that we will have a crop at this point. What we don’t know is what the fruits will look like when they are grown. Some scarring and other damage may have occurred, but time will tell. But we feel blessed that we seem to have come through the cold in good shape!

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We cut across the buds to look inside. The apple bud on the bottom is green and alive! The one on top is frozen!

And after a stretch of 60 hours on 5 hours of sleep, Tuesday night had no threat of frost, and a high chance of rest! We took full advantage of that!

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

The weather roller coaster…

As I write this, the temperature is 29 degrees and it is snowing like crazy outside. Yet at this time yesterday it was 57 and we were in the middle of a thunderstorm! This has been the pattern over the last few weeks. And we found out today that this February was the warmest on record!

So the questions continue: “What is this doing to the fruit trees?” Well it’s confusing to us for sure, and I’m guessing that the trees are mixed up a little too. In looking at the apple buds day after day, I can see that they have broken out of the dormant stage. The buds on some varieties are in fact quite swollen. If we remain cold for a while the growth should come to a standstill. But with the forecast reaching the upper 50’s for the weekend again, bud development will inch forward again. So how do we know where we should be in a normal weather year? And how do we compare that to where we are now? The answer lies in calculating “degree days”.

In an earlier blog I talked about chilling hours, and how important they are to the fruit growing process. You may recall that calculating chilling hours tells us how far along in the dormancy stage the trees are. But we also calculate “degree days”, and that tells us how the trees are progressing in the growing season. Figuring out degree days is done using a couple different models. For simplicity’s sake we will use the easiest way  which is done by adding the low temperature of the day to the high and dividing by two.

Apple trees grow at 42 degrees and warmer. If the average temperature for the day is above 42, you begin counting degree days. So if the low for the day is 35, and the high is 55, the average is 45 degrees. That gives you 3 degree days for that day (3 degrees above 42). Each day is calculated separately and added to the total.

With years of data in the books we can estimate the number of degree days at which fruit buds are in different stages of growth. For instance, McIntosh buds first start showing green at around 127 degree days.

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So what does all of this mean? Well as of today we have accumulated around 57 degree days. While that is quite far ahead of normal for March 1, we won’t be adding any more for a few days here with the cold weather. But the forecast will add some more this weekend and we will keep adding up the numbers as the days go by. Hopefully we will just creep along over the next weeks and not really blow up our temperatures like we did in 2012. This early warmth will probably move our season ahead of normal some. How much? I guess we will know when we get there! But at this point a week or two earlier than normal is probably a reasonable estimate. But remember, this is Michigan. It could be still snowing in April!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Coffee time

I’m always interested in how other crops are grown. I don’t mean regular stuff like beans and corn, but things I haven’t seen grown before. So last week while Bonnie and I were on vacation, we toured a coffee plantation. And I learned a lot about coffee that I didn’t know before.

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Kauai Coffee is the largest coffee estate in the United States. For well over 100 years, this property was used to grow sugar cane. But beginning in 1987, the family began to make the switch to growing coffee instead. Today the numbers are staggering. Over 4 million coffee bushes spread across 3,100 acres of land. The orchards on the estate produces millions of pounds of coffee each year. They grow 5 main varieties of coffee on the estate, but like us apple farmers they are always trying new kinds to look for improved taste and quality.

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As I drove on the highway that parallels the estate, I was struck by how “orchard like” the coffee fields looked. Row after row of very uniform bushes that went on for miles along the road. Everything was very neatly kept. I was impressed! The bushes were very green (as they are all year long) and were beginning to bud. Bloom time begins later this month and lasts through April with different varieties blossoming at different times. By May the green “cherries” are forming. Yes that is what they call them and it took some getting used to!  Throughout the summer the entire estate is under daily drip irrigation. Just a few miles north of the estate is one of the wettest mountain areas on earth, receiving over 460 inches of rain each year. Through a series of canals and ditches Kauai Coffee uses this rainwater to provide nearly 28 million gallons of water DAILY to the coffee orchards!

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Coffee buds that will bloom soon!

In mid-October, the coffee “cherries” are beginning to get ready for harvest, and they do resemble red cherries. They are harvested with what looked to me like a blueberry harvester that drives over the row and removes all the cherries at once. This goes on for about 7 weeks. The coffee bean is actually the seed in the center of the “cherry”. As soon as harvest begins the process of removing the flesh around the bean, cleaning, drying and sorting the beans starts too. Coffee is very fragile and these tasks must be accomplished as quickly after harvest as possible. The final task is roasting, and it is a very delicate and exacting process. Mere minutes separate a medium from a dark roast!  Kauai Coffee grows, harvests, roasts,  grinds and packages their coffee right on the estate. We tasted many combinations of roasts and varieties, and it is amazing how each is slightly different in flavor and aroma.

Here are some other interesting things we learned:

Coffee bushes are grown from seed, not grafted like apple trees.

It takes from 7 to 9 years for a coffee bush to start bearing.

Once bearing, a coffee bush is cut back to a stump to renew it about every 9 years. Then it starts bearing again about three years later.

It takes 7 pounds of green coffee beans to make one pound of dried finished coffee.

Dark roasted coffee has less caffeine than medium roast. So “drink dark roast in the dark “(at night) is the rule of thumb. It won’t keep you awake as much.

It was fun to see and learn about something I really had no knowledge of before. While in some ways, farming is farming, the subtle differences and similarities in growing are amazing. It was funny that while I was asking them about growing coffee they wanted to know about growing apples. That made me smile. I guess farmers are farmers no matter where they find themselves!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Chillin’ out

With the unseasonable weather we are having, there is one subject that I get asked a lot about lately: “Are the warm temperatures going to hurt the trees? Will they start blooming?” Well the answer is no. But that opens up a complicated and fascinating subject.

When a fruit tree finishes its growing season, it slowly enters the process of dormancy as winter approaches. Temperatures play a large role in this. With the warm fall we had this past year this process was delayed for weeks. But once the trees reached the dormant stage, that’s when the chilling begins.

Fruit trees need a certain number of “chilling hours” in order to rest and prepare for the next season. A chilling hour is defined in different ways. Some of the calculating models say that any temps below 45°F count, but others, oddly enough say that temps below 30°F do not count as chilling hours. Still other models begin at 50°F and below and count any hours above 60°F as subtracting from chilling hours. Confused yet? So am I! (and the trees probably are too!) But it is generally accepted to use temperatures between 32°F and 45°F as satisfying the chilling hour standard. And that is the degree range that is tracked by adding up the hours each day during the winter.

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Different fruits, and even different varieties within a fruit type, have different requirements for chilling hours. Most apples need 700-1000 chilling hours to grow and produce properly. There are exceptions such as Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith which need only 400 -600 hours. That is why those varieties are commonly grown in California. Most peaches need 750-950 hours although again there are some as low as 200 hours. Cherries  need 1000+ chilling hours–ever notice that most are grown in the northern U.S.A.?

So what happens if a fruit tree doesn’t receive enough chilling hours in the winter? Well the tree may produce buds with very weak and uneven blossoms, or it may bloom later and over a wide time period. In severe cases the trees may not bloom at all and have a difficult time producing leaves!

Fortunately here in Michigan we have pretty consistent accumulations of chilling hours year after year. The varieties of fruits that we grow are nicely suited to the chilling hour numbers that we see. If you have ever seen a climate zone map such as those put out by nurseries and seed companies, chilling hours are one factor that goes into determining the the different zones. Want to calculate the chilling hours in your neck of the woods? Here is a place to do that.

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So our fruit trees need some time to just chill out in order to recharge for another growing season. Probably a lesson in there for all of us!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Back to school?

Winter looks like it’s finally setting in. It has been a beautiful fall season that lasted longer than usual. But now it is December and what’s a farmer to do? Well an older gentleman who happens to be a  fruit grower like me once told me: “Winter is time for learning”. I’ll never forget that. This man has probably forgotten more about fruit farming than I will ever know, and still he takes advantage of learning opportunities well into his 80’s. That should set an example for all of us.

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A car wash? No, an over-the-row blueberry picker!

This week we have been attending the Great Lakes Expo down at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids. It is a 3 day trade show dedicated to fruit, vegetable, and greenhouse farmers and is attended by over 4,000 people from the growing community. Besides a huge equipment show with over 450 exhibitors, there are more than 70 workshops and education sessions on a wide variety of topics. Everything from the latest technology to new marketing opportunities are on display here. Not only are there tractors and specialized equipment, big and small, from clever designers who are often farmers themselves, but also high-tech computer apps and hardware to make everything more accurate. Bumblebees(packaged of course) and brush choppers, apple slicers and website builders, irrigation systems and frost fans, if it has to do with farming, it is represented at the Expo. It really is amazing!

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That’s one big tractor! Note the regular sized tractor parked underneath it!

Our whole family attends the show, and we all are able to take some new knowledge away from the experience. Often it serves to renew our excitement looking toward next season with new ideas to try out and tweaks to things we are already doing. It makes us better at what we do! And I think sometimes we learn as much from our conversations with other growers as we do from the formal education sessions. I am always impressed at how farmers, generally a pretty independent bunch, are also a tightly knit community willing to share their knowledge of the trade with their peers. And at an event like this it is evident as groups of people from around the country and the world discuss and share ideas to make better growers of all of us. Pretty heartwarming! I’ve been attending this event since the late 1970’s, when it was held in the basement of the old Civic Auditorium, and each year I meet new people and old friends.

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Back to school! a seminar on the latest orchard planting systems.

So my 80 something year old friend is right. For us winter is time for learning. And planning. Because I’ve also heard it said:”If you stop learning, you better stop farming”. That probably is true of many things in life.

Have a fruitful week!

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.

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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