Wrapping up

Well the harvest is nearly over for the year. It seems to have taken a long time for some reason. We are planning on picking our last fruit today–Pink Lady apples. A funny name for an apple that is the last one to the table!

The end of the harvest always brings mixed feelings for me. I’m excited that the whole year’s work has accomplished it’s goal. It is a blessing to look back and see that in spite of challenges of weather and the fickleness of some of the fruits we grow, we have once again brought a crop to completion. The blessings of sun and rain and growth seem to come in different amounts and timings every year. Some years they fit together perfectly and producing a crop seems easy. Other years their timings, shortages, or overabundance leave us frustrated and struggling to figure out how we will ever make ends meet. But after harvest, when we have the time to look back over the season and reflect, each year it seems that in spite of our challenges and shortcomings we still have been blessed. And being able to recognize that is a blessing in itself.

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So now we try to wrap up the tasks that need to be done before the snow flies. Gathering ladders and empty apple bins and tucking them away inside. Mowing the grass in the orchards short to give the tree chewing mice less places to hide this winter. Applying nutrients to tired trees that have given their best to produce a crop for us. Tidying up the buildings that have been seriously neglected in all of our harvest-time busyness. But it is a different pace now that the fruit is picked. The long and frenzied days spent getting the fruit off and stored away are finished. While there is still work to do, the atmosphere is a little more relaxed and the pace is a lot less frantic. Which is good for all of us. As the annual cycle of the farm comes to completion, we can look over the season and see God’s faithfulness reflected once again. All of the “Why doesn’t it rain?!” times this summer, that morphed into “When is it ever going to stop raining?” this fall, become almost funny when we think about it. “O ye of little faith!” Yup. Sometimes that’s us. But in this farming business we get an annual post harvest time for a faith checkup. And while sometimes it is hard to recognize the good that came out of the season, it is always there. We just have to look a little deeper to find it.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker      tompic

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Picky, Picky!

Apple harvest is in full swing! Our days are filled with keeping our workers supplied with apples to pick, and apple bins to put them in. Then our evenings are spent putting the bins into cold storage, or getting them ready to truck away to wholesale customers. It’s a busy time of year!

Every apple harvested on our farm is picked by hand. There are no machines as of yet to take over that task. It’s hard work. A good apple picker can harvest 150 bushels of fruit in a day! And at 42 pounds per bushel, well, you do the math. As we go through the fall, we work our way through the many varieties that we grow. Each ripens at it’s own time, beginning with Lodi in late July, and ending with Granny Smith around November 1st. In between over twenty other varieties are harvested when ready. Some are picked just one time, harvesting all of the fruit at once. Others, like Honeycrisp, are picked over several times, taking just the ripest, most highly colored fruit each time.

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Another Honeycrisp novelty is the fact that when picking, we clip short the stem on every apple. It is a time consuming task, but worth the extra time and money. Honeycrisp have a very tender skin, and often, a long pokey stem that will damage the apple next to it when placed in a bin. Damaged apples lose a lot of value in the marketplace, so we do whatever we can to prevent that. Our workers carry a small stem clipper strapped to their index finger. Once picked, the stem is quickly snipped off and the apple placed into the picking bag that each worker carries. Over the course of a day the process is repeated thousands of times! The bag is slung over the shoulders and holds about 30 pounds of fruit when full. These people are professionals!

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Our apples go to many different places in the fall. Many are sold right from our market to customers who visit us. Some are used in our bakery for pies, breads, and dumplings. Much of the crop goes to packing facilities that package and sell the fruit for us to grocery chains. Some of the apples go to Nestle (Gerber) to be processed into baby food. Others go for fresh slices or cubes sold to the fast food industry for salads or packaged fresh apple slices. Still others are sliced and frozen for pie companies. Each apple has a purpose and a place to go!

So this is “crunch time” (pun intended). We begin the day before sunrise, and often end after sunset. We pray for good weather, fret when rain stops our harvest, and then remember that all of this is in the hands of One who knows exactly what we really need. And that is the best place there is for our harvest to be!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker     tompic

An eye for color.

Hi, I’m Tom, and I’m color blind. “Hi Tom.” All my life I’ve felt like there should be a support group for people like me. We could get together and tell, um, color stories. Like “So I came downstairs with this shirt on and my wife says:”You can’t wear THAT shirt with THOSE shorts!” Tell me about it. I’ve heard it all my life.

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I remember in school when the subject came up in biology class. There were these little images made of different color dots that we had to look at. “Regular” people saw the number “74” when they looked at the image. I just saw a bunch of dots. And then it began. “Moelker can’t see it! Hey, what do YOU see Moelker? What color is this? What color is this?” They could have sold tickets to that sideshow. After a while you learn to buy clothes in colors you can see. And you learn which shirts go with what pants, etc. But then you get clothes as a gift, or your wife buys you a new shirt and, well, you have to ask “What color is this?” or “What can I wear this with?” Fortunately I have an understanding wife who patiently helps me.

So I had learned to deal with the malady over the years. When my kids were little, they thought I only saw things in black and white! And then someone came up with the Gala apple. Now you have to know, in the old days we had apples that were red. Or yellow. Or green. But nooo, that wasn’t good enough. Now we have this Gala apple that is “…pink to magenta, with a background color that goes from light green to cream when it’s ready to pick.” Huh? I’m still trying to get the right shirt on in the morning and now my occupation is turning against me! And then it was Honeycrisp. And Pink Lady. All of a sudden you have to be Picasso just to pick an apple at the right time! And peaches! Don’t even get me started on peaches. I have actually learned to pick peaches by the feel and shape of them alone. You see, they get to be more round and less almond shaped when they are mature. And when you grasp them in your hand, they just feel right. I can’t explain it really.

And so it’s hard for me to teach someone else how to pick a peach or a Honeycrisp apple by looking at the color. I’ve given that task over to my wife and my kids, all of whom can see colors perfectly well. When it is time to begin picking Honeycrisp with a new crew of workers, My son or my wife (or both) come out and show the harvesters what the color requirements are. Most pick it up quickly. I’ve watched this instruction time and time again. I still don’t know what they’re talking about. “See the difference?” they ask. All the heads nod, “Yes.” Me? I just shrug my shoulders and look hard to see the number “74”.

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I do have one advantage though. If the sun ever goes out and we have to pick peaches in the dark, you guys will be lost. And I’ll be right at home, picking with my eyes closed!

Have a fruitful (and colorful) week!

Tom Moelker         tompic

Hay there!

This time of year always brings back memories of baling hay when I was a kid. I only have to smell the aroma of freshly cut hay, and I immediately go back to those hot summer days in my youth when hay season meant hot weather and hard work. And the camaraderie of neighbors and relatives all pitching in (pun intended) to get the job done.

Back before my time, hay wasn’t baled, it was pitched. With a pitch fork. The kind you see in old farmer pictures. The hay was loose and a fork was the only way to handle it. You “pitched” it out of the field and onto the wagon with your fork. Sort of like spaghetti, but more slippery. And then you pulled the wagon into the barn and pitched it into the loft. just a big pile of loose hay for your animal’s feed. It was a lot of work.

Ike Korhorn, Grandpa Moelker, neil, John, Gerrit, Eliabeth , John

Then the baler was invented and it packed the hay into tight bales and tied them up with twine. Much more efficient, but the heavy bales had to be loaded from the field onto a wagon. The guys on the wagon had a big job. Not only did they have to stack the hay up ten to twelve feet high, but they had to do it in such a way that the load would stay together and not tip over or fall off. Keep in mind that a hay bay weighs anywhere from 50-90 pounds! We kids had all we could do to get the bales up onto the wagon at chest height. The guys on the wagon had to throw them up onto the stack above their heads! I can still remember riding on top of a wagon load as a kid. The view from up there was great! Until the load shifted as we went around a corner and the whole thing tumbled off the side of the wagon! Nobody was hurt, but we had to load it all up again. I think I learned some words I hadn’t heard before.

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Haying time was always hot. Or so it seemed. But you couldn’t wear shorts and a t-shirt because hay is..well..hay. It’s prickly and scratchy and it sticks to you when you sweat. Which is always, when you are haying. Getting it loaded onto the wagon was only half the job. Because it still had to be stacked up in the barn. Which means the whole process would be repeated in unloading the wagon into the barn. We tried to load and unload the wagons in the cool of the morning or evening. But more often than not, it seems we wound up haying in the heat of the day.

I write all of this in past tense, because I don’t do hay anymore. But plenty of farmers still do. And while many now bale in big round bales that are handled with a tractor and don’t have to be touched by a human hand at all, I still see plenty of small square bales being made. And I don’t envy those who are out there loading wagons on hot summer days. But in all of the hard work there was still the fun of working with friends. A cold glass of lemonade never tasted so good! And the good feeling of accomplishment when a field was mowed flat and empty of its bales. I’m happy to have done it, But I’m also happy that I don’t do it anymore!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Apples are measuring up!

So the bloom is finished, and the bees have moved on to their next jobs on other farms. The apples are growing larger every day. But if all the blossoms on an apple tree turn into apples, the tree would never be able to support them all! And the resulting crop would look like bushels and bushels of little red golf balls!

Some of the blossoms, however did not get pollinated. So those will not turn into apples. Some may have winter or spring cold weather damage and will not develop. And sometimes the tree, knowing how many apples it is carrying by sensing the volume of a hormone produced by each apple seed, will abort some of the apples in order to survive. (See my prior blog on Gibberellins). If left alone, apple trees will often have a big crop one year and a small or no crop the next. We growers realize that in order to have a decent crop year after year, we have to try to smooth out that cycle to have a moderate crop every year.

There is a short window of opportunity after bloom in which we can help the tree cast off some of it’s fruit if it is carrying too much. But at that point, we still don’t know just which fruits are going to continue and which will stop and fall off. That’s where apple measuring comes into play. For several years now, my daughters, Tressa and Taylor, have taken on the task of measuring fruitlets every three days over this period. First they mark 75 fruits on each of 5 trees in each orchard that we are tracking.

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Blue ribbons mark each cluster of apples.
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Each cluster is numbered, and each apple as well

Then they measure each fruit with a digital calipers and record the data.

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It is a time consuming task, repeated every 3 days in each variety that we want data on.

The data is entered into an Excel spreadsheet program. After 3 or 4 sets of data have been entered, we can crunch the numbers and the program will tell us which fruits are growing and which are slowing down and are going to eventually stop. This is a huge help to us in determining the eventual size of the coming crop, and with this information we can decide whether to leave the tree alone or to “help” it to cast off some of it’s fruit. We can do that by applying some products that stress the tree slightly so that it will decide it can’t carry quite so much. The tree will then kick some more fruit off and help regulate the crop.

The process isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are many other factors involved; tree health, weather, and previous year’s crop all play a role in the big picture of crop size and the response that we may get when we try to”help” the trees. But the many hours of work and thousands of measurements that these girls take are an invaluable resource for us, making a difficult decision making process more precise. Hats off to them!!

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My measuring crew, Tressa and Taylor!

Just another example of how technology and hard work are changing farming for the better!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker    tompic

Brushing up on Spring!

Spring has Sprung!! Or at least the calendar says so. The weather has moderated some, although it is still freezing at night, and we still have remnants of snow laying around. Apparently winter isn’t giving up easily this year. Maybe it doesn’t like being told to go home!

Most of our apple and pear trimming is finished. With just a few rows of Fuji and Spy still to go, and some young Pink Lady apple trees that are still hanging on to last year’s leaves.

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Time to prune them, leaves or not!

I guess they aren’t ready to call it spring yet either. We are spending much of this week removing the trimmings from our winter pruning out of the orchards. This dry weather stretch has been helpful, because we can get around the orchards without tearing up the sod with our tractors. Some years that is not the case.

So what do we do with all that brush? Well the younger trees have small prunings that we chop into smithereens and leave right in the orchard. That’s good for putting the nutrients back into the ground. Our chopper has limitations though, so bigger limbs must be removed from the orchard and piled up to be burned.

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That’ll be some big hot dog roast! Whichever way we dispose of the brush, it has to be raked or swept into the center of the rows. And that requires a body and a rake. As kids growing up in the apple business we all knew what Spring Break meant. It meant raking brush. No, not on a beach somewhere in Florida or Mexico. Right here. On the farm. And whether Spring Break was early or late, it always seemed to coincide with…you guessed it…raking brush. Some years were cold and wet. Others were warm-ish and almost pleasant. But the job remained the same. It was always better if we could get some cousins or neighbor kids to help. The monumental task seemed to go faster that way. By the end of the week we were almost looking forward to going back to school!

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This row is raked!

With the brush cleaned up, I like the way the orchard looks in the spring. All the trees standing at attention, poised to begin the growing season.

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A fresh start. A new year. And while we don’t know yet what the season will bring, we are promised that spring will come, growth will begin, and the roller coaster ride to harvest will never be boring or predictable. Unlike raking brush….

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