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

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

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

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

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