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! ūüôā

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Winter wanderings

Christmas is past and the New Year is fast approaching. As I am writing this, the thermometer reads -4 degrees. Brrrr! We have stopped trimming our trees until it warms up a bit because at these very cold temps the wood around our new cuts can be damaged. It seems we are in for a real winter this year!

While it is cold outside, it is also beautiful. The trees are nicely “frosted” with snow. It is amazing how the orchards are transformed into a winter wonderland overnight! I love how each season brings a different type of splendor to the trees. The blossoms of spring, the fruits of summer, the colors of fall, and now that fairyland of winter snow. Hard to work in, but stunning in its quiet beauty.

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So now we find “inside work”. Repair jobs around the farm and house that have patiently (or not so patiently) waited for me to catch up. Sometimes there are many more important things that push these tasks aside, and sometimes it is just procrastination. Just ask my wife about the coat rack I promised last spring that finally went up on Christmas day! Other fix-its that I planned on when I got around to it. Well the¬†“round tuits” are plentiful in weather like this, so I’ve no excuses now. Tax season will be upon us soon so year’s end is a good time to prepare for that. Going through monthly bills and receipts is like living the year all over again. Some good: “What a great cherry season”! And some, well, not so much. At one point this summer all of my tractors were in the shop for repairs! But as we often say, “That’s farming”. It has it ups and downs just like all of life. The secret is to realize that we aren’t the ones in control here, and that the One who is in control wants only good for us. Once we figure that out, it smooths out the paths we travel on.

And winter is also time to relax and have some fun. It’s funny how weather that is too cold to work in the orchard seems to be fine once you put on a snowmobile suit and helmet. We can ride a couple hundred miles on the trails and have fun in that same weather. Some day I’ll figure out why that is. Something to do with perspective, I’m guessing. It’s like if it is too cold and snowy to have school, why are all the kids playing outside, sledding, building snow forts and having snowball fights? Perspective!

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So with all of that, I’ll wish you a Happy New Year. May you be blessed with ups and downs and most of all, may you realize those blessings.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

S’no joke!

So is it just me, or have we become winter wimps over the last years? Here it is, December 6 and the weather people are issuing a “Winter Weather Advisory” for the possibility of “a trace to 2 inches of snow overnight”. Seriously. I think that when it’s 60 degrees on December 4, like it was on Monday, a “Summer Weather Advisory” would be more appropriate.

Now I don’t want to sound like Great Grandpa and his “walking to school in 4 feet of snow” stories, but really? It’s December. It’s supposed to snow now. It seems that over half the vehicles on the road now have all-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive. So we have to be better at handling this kind of weather than we used to in our 4,200 pound rear-wheel drive Buick, right?

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We spent the last couple days at the Great Lakes Expo, the trade show attended by farmers and agriculture industry people from all over the U.S. While the focus is on tree fruit, vegetable, and greenhouse growers, lots of general farming information and experts are there too. It’s a great opportunity to learn at the seminars, talk with other growers, and just enjoy the company of a great community of growers from around the country.

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Travis and I catch up growing trends and techniques, and the girls learn and share about farm market and bakery operation. There are always new ideas, trends, and even some stories about what not to do to be learned. I’ve said it before: I’ve never seen an industry where “company secrets” are shared so openly in an effort to make us all better at what we do. It is a real “we are all in this together attitude” shared by everyone from university professors, research scientists, equipment manufacturers, sales people and farmers alike.

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It’s one of the reasons I enjoy farming so much. The people. Whether they are growers I see weekly throughout the year, or some that I only see at the Expo once a year, they are a great group of genuine, down to earth friends. And I”ll bet they know how to drive in snow too.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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

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¬įF count, but others,¬†oddly enough say that temps below 30¬įF do not count as chilling hours. Still other models begin at 50¬įF and below and count any hours above 60¬įF 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¬įF and 45¬įF 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