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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Old Iron

Well our apple harvest is almost finished. We are still waiting for a few later varieties to ripen so we can close the book on another growing season. It is always a relief to finish the harvest. It’s like crossing the finish line in a race. And even after doing it for so many years it still feels like an accomplishment every year. So although the race isn’t quite over yet, we can see the finish line!

While on one of my many trips back to the orchard with my tractor a few weeks ago, I found a piece of history. I was driving down “the lane”, the old path that has been used for over a hundred years to travel the length of the farm. I’ve traveled this path thousands of times in my life, as did my family and the generations before me. In fact, if I mention “the lane” to my brothers or sisters or cousins they will know exactly where I am speaking of. Anyway, on this particular day I spotted an odd shape sticking up out of the dirt. I got off the tractor and pulled it loose. It  was a horseshoe, rusted and worn from years of weather. How long had it laid there? I have no idea, but it has been many years since horses have been used on this farm. It made me think about the old days. Did Grandpa come home that day only to discover that one of the plow horses had lost a shoe? And what happened then? Did he have to call the farrier to come re-shoe the horse? Sort of like fixing a flat tire on the tractor? Probably not quite as serious as that, but still another thing to deal with on a busy day of farming.

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I often come across an odd piece of iron that works it’s way to the surface. Sometimes I can recognize what it was–a bolt or something maybe. But my Dad always knew what it was. “That’s the bolt from the plowshare.” or “That bracket came from the threshing machine.” He had an intimate knowledge of how things were put together. It seems that over time, piece by piece, those old tools distributed themselves over the farm! When I was young I would proudly come home with my latest find. These days I just knock the dirt off the find and put it in the tool box, so I don’t get the aforementioned flat tire later. But this horseshoe was different. I have found a couple of them over the years, and each time it takes me back to an entirely different era. This isn’t just a bolt or a bit of broken iron. This was fashioned and attached by a craftsman, and who knows how many steps or days or months it was fastened to the horse’s hoof. And what Grandpa said when he saw that it was missing. Maybe it’s better I don’t know that 😉

It is funny how something can stop your day for even just a moment, and take you to another place and time. And it’s kind of fun and maybe a little more meaningful for me as I get older, to see something as simple as an old horseshoe. I can imagine an excited little boy a 100 years from now coming home with a piece of one of my tractors. From where “the lane” used to be. What a treasure!

Have a fruitful week!

P.S. My mom, Donna Moelker, celebrates her 93rd birthday today! I hope she has a fruitful day too! If you see her, wish her well!

Tom Moelker

Looking back.

Our farm has been in the family for 110 years as of 2017. That is a long time. It makes me wonder what Grandpa John Moelker would say if he could see the farm now. In some ways it is the same. The house, the lay of the land, the Grand River winding lazily across the west end of the farm. I’m sure some of it would still be familiar to him. Other things, of course would be vastly different from the farm he worked and knew well.

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The relationship between a farmer and his farm is an amazing thing. I often compare it to a person and his or her back yard, only bigger. You know where the weeds are in your lawn, which plants flower and when, and how much that one tree has grown since you moved in. You remember where Billy used to jump off the swing set, and where Susie would hide in the corner of the lot when she was angry. Each square foot of space holds a memory if you have lived somewhere for a long time.  For me it is the same, only on a larger scale. Since I have spent so many years on this farm, seeing most or all of it every day, subtle changes stand out to me and memories are everywhere.

 

We pushed out an orchard this year that was planted in 1975. I was 15 years old then. Which means that for most of my life since then, those trees have been under my care. And though it sounds crazy, each of those trees had its own characteristics that I could relate. That one tipped over in the early ’80’s during a hard wind and rain storm. This one, for some reason always produced apples that didn’t get very red. Those two trees always get ripe a few days before the rest. That tree, when it started bearing, was not a Red Delicious like it was suppose to be. It was an Early Blaze. Mislabeled at the nursery that sold it to us. On and on it goes. And it isn’t just trees and orchards that trigger these familiar thoughts. Places on the farm bring up memories too. That hollow tree in the woods that has had raccoons living in it for as long as I can remember. I was standing right here when I shot my first deer. Dad once got his tractor so stuck right here that it took every thing we had to pull it out. We laughed later, much later. It wasn’t funny then. I jumped out of the truck here once to try to stop a runaway wagon before it hit some apple trees. The wagon stopped on it’s own. The truck, however, was not in neutral when I bailed out, and it proceeded to mow down two apple trees before it stopped. I still can’t laugh about that one. The look on Dad’s face? Well let’s just say I didn’t say much the rest of that day!

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My dad ran this farm for a lot of the 110 years. And Grandpa did too, in the years before that. I’m sure that each of them had their own stories and ideas about interesting spots all over the farm. Funny how one piece of land can, over the years, evoke so many memories, good and bad. I think sometimes that if Grandpa, Dad,and I could sit down together and talk about the farm it would be an amazing conversation. I get tears in my eyes just picturing that scene. So many years of observations, memories and changes. Yet even after 110 years, some of it is still the same. And each day I add more thoughts and memories. Just like you do, in your back yard.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

Flower power!

BOOM! “What WAS that?!” A couple of weeks ago that was all the conversation around the area as the mystery explosion was investigated. Turns out it was a bunch of guys shooting at an exploding target at a bachelor party south of here! Hard to believe, I know. 😉

This week we had an explosion here that was much more pleasant. The cherry and plum trees exploded in blossoms with the warm weather over the weekend and into this week! I’ve seldom seen such an abundance of bloom on the cherry trees! And just a few days later the pears burst into full bloom too. The peach trees are full too, and although the flowers on a peach tree are not as showy from a distance, they are quite beautiful up close. Apple bloom always trails the others by a week or so and they are just beginning to open now.

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Cherry blossoms

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Peach blossoms

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Pear blossoms

The bees arrived on Monday night and are already hard at work pollinating the fruit trees. Walking through the cherry orchard there is a distinct “hum” in the air as hundreds of thousands of honeybees go about their business. These bees know their stuff! And they are well traveled too. They winter in Florida pollinating in the citrus groves. At some point the travel to California to the almond orchards to do their work. Then it’s back to Florida again to finish the winter crops. Last week they were loaded on a semi truck and hauled up here to Michigan to move into the apple and cherry orchards. There are six hives on each pallet, and each houses around 25,000 to 35,000 bees this time of year.

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These are truly “migrant” workers! Once the trees fruits are finished blooming, the bees will move into the blueberry fields. They spend the summer here in Michigan and then the cycle starts over again. It never seems to end for these little critters, but they never are as happy as when they can gather pollen and nectar on a warm sunny day. And on a rainy day when they can’t go to work they are ornery. It’s risky to even approach the hives on a day like that!

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Blossom time is always so beautiful here on the farm. The fragrance in the orchard is almost intoxicating. Each type of flower has its own distinct shape, color and aroma. But in spite of the beauty,  the list of tasks is long and demanding at this time of year. The warm Spring has pushed our season ahead of normal by about 2 weeks. We are still finishing our pruning on peaches and cherries, and it is finally drying out enough to work the ground. Soon we will be planting trees. So sometimes when we are so busy we have to be reminded to stop and smell the…blossoms! That’s good advice for everyone.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Logging in–oldstyle. Part 3

So when we ended last week, the logs were all cut into boards at the sawmill, and we had hauled them home. Rough-sawn oak, hard and straight. Now we had to cut the boards into the lengths we needed to make the different parts of the apple bins; the bottom, the sides and the ends. Three different sizes were needed. So how to cut them quickly and uniformly? We used a “buzz rig” on our old Ford tractor.

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The buzz rig ran off a wide leather belt from a big pulley on the back of the tractor. It had a 30 inch round blade that remained stationary as it spun. A “table” on which the lumber was laid could be rocked forward, pushing the lumber into the blade. Dad had clamped a block on the end of the table so that when the board was up against the block, it would be cut to the right length. It was a noisy job, what with the tractor running at mid throttle and the saw blade “singing” with every cut. It was a dangerous looking rig when it stood still. Even more so when it was running. Dad always did the cutting, and I would stack the finished boards. I guess he didn’t want a son nicknamed “Stubby”

Once the lumber was all cut to lengths, the bin building began. First the bottoms, two thick rails set to width, with boards nailed across them to form a sturdy flat base. Oh, and we used hammers. You know, the old fashioned kind with wooden handles. No air nail guns here! And long spiral nails that were really hard. Dad could pound those nails into the hard oak with a couple of strikes. Me? Well, SOME of them went in straight. He would finish his side and set up the next bottom while I flailed away at my side. I got better at it with time, and he never chided me. He did tease me once in a while though after a particularly stubborn pounding session. By the end of the day my arm felt like rubber and my hand was blistered. And the thumb on my left hand was blue and swollen. Did I mention that I hit the wrong “nail” sometimes? I started wrapping my fingers with electrical tape to soften the blow!

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Next we would build the sides. Dad had made a jig that held the corners of the boxes straight and at just the right width. Once again, lots of pounding nails. Then we had to attach the sides to the bottom, keeping everything square. That was a little more difficult, because as he was pounding on his side of the bin the whole thing was moving my way. and I was trying to do the same from my side. We were both trying to start nails on a moving target! When the sides were finally attached to the bottoms, we could finish by putting the end boards on. And you guessed it…more nailing! As I remember, the number of nails in each bin was 174!

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I don’t know exactly how many of those bins we made, it was in the hundreds over the years I’m sure. But when they were finished, there were rows of gleaming white oak bins lined up in the yard. And the satisfaction he took from starting with a standing tree in the woods, and ending with a finished apple bin was the reward. Persistence, endurance, creativity, and getting your fingers out of the way of a descending hammer. All good lessons for a kid to learn.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

Logging in–oldstyle. Part 2

Last time I told about how my dad would cut down trees for lumber to make his own apple bins. When I left off, we had loaded the logs on the truck to take them to the sawmill. The mill we went to was located on the opposite side of the Grand River just about a mile downstream from where we cut the logs. A hundred years earlier they would have just rolled the logs into the river and floated them down to the mill. There were quite a few sawmills along the river up and downstream from Grand Rapids, supplying the furniture industry during that era. Log traffic on the river was common.

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But we were trucking the logs to the sawmill. We drove down Lake Michigan drive, crossed the river by Grand Valley to Allendale, headed south and then back east to the river again. There, back in the woods along the river, was an open-air sawmill run by an old man my dad knew. They would shoot the breeze for half an hour before he would unload the truck. That gave me time to wander around and look at the old sawmill equipment. It looked positively like something from Dr. Suess, but with more straight lines! Rails and hooks and levers and belts were everywhere. Kind of like a mini railroad yard. And right in the middle, a big round saw blade, probably 4-5 feet in diameter. The sawdust around the thing was 2 feet deep! I couldn’t imagine how the whole thing worked.

Dad waited to leave so I could see how the whole contraption worked. The old man would fire up the big gasoline engine and roll a log onto the machine. Then, with deft skill the process would begin. He would work the levers and pulley ropes and the log was moved back and forth through the saw, each pass cutting a slice off with a deafening screech. It was amazing to watch one man control the choreography of  whole process so precisely with such archaic equipment! And no earplugs, guards or safety shutoffs. Obviously OSHA hadn’t been invented yet.

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A week or so later we would return to the sawmill. Our lumber was neatly stacked off to the side, waiting for us. Layer upon layer of uniform oak boards, cut to the measurements that my dad had ordered. I can still remember the aroma. Not the  smell of treated lumber that you notice in a big box store. This was the delicious scent of freshly cut lumber right out of the forest. Once loaded I remember wondering how a full truckload of logs had shrunken into half a truckload of lumber. Ah yes, the sawdust. And the big pile of trimmings with bark on it that lay off the end of the sawmill.

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Back at the farm we had to unload and sort the boards into the different sizes for each part of the boxes. But the sawing wasn’t finished yet! Next week I’ll tell how the whole box-building process was completed.

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

Trimming the trees

It’s a new year, and just like that we go back to winter with a vengeance! But it is, after all, January in Michigan-what do we expect? This time of year things on the farm have slowed down a lot. The holidays are over, the bakery is closed, and we have only a few weeks worth of apples left to sell. So now our focus turns to the annual task of pruning (trimming) apple trees.

There is an old story that when Michelangelo finished his famous statue of David an amazed patron asked “How do you create such a fine work of art?” His answer? “I just chip away everything that doesn’t look like David!” While this story may or may not be true, It comes to mind when someone asks me “How do you know which limbs to cut off and which to leave?” Well there are methods and some rules of thumb to abide by, but some of is just that I kind of know what I want the tree to look like when I’m finished. If I lined up 5 of my fruit growing friends and all looked at the same tree, we probably would not all make the same cuts. That’s because we all have a different picture in our heads of what the finished product should look like!

The older plantings on our farm are pruned in more traditional ways. Free-standing trees, with strong main branches are maintained by removing the yearly “sucker” growth. “Suckers” are  the thin, upright sprouts with no fruit buds on them. Occasionally a large limb is removed in favor of a younger fruiting branch. Outsides and tops are cut back to contain the tree to it’s space and the branches are thinned to let sunlight in. This process is accomplished by riding in a self propelled trimming machine equipped with hydraulic saw and lopper. The driving and moving side to side and up and down are all done with levers run by my feet. This leaves my hands free to use the pruning tools and make the needed cuts. After years of running this machine, I rarely think about the driving part, my feet just do the task subconsciously. Up one side of the row and down the other, hour after hour, day after day.

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Newer plantings are an entirely different animal though. While some of the same principles are applied, These trees will have no permanent limbs. Every year we remove 2-4 of the biggest limbs, leaving a stub that hopefully will send out a new branch the following summer. In this way, the apples are always growing on young, healthy branches and older wood is constantly being replaced. The trees are kept very narrow so that sunlight can penetrate the entire tree from all sides. I’m still getting used to this newer method and it takes a little more thought for me, probably because I’ve been doing it the old way for so long!

So how do I keep from getting bored during the seemingly endless hours or trimming? Well I do have to pay attention to what I am doing, but I often have music or a podcast going in my ears as background noise. My phone is set for hands free calling too, so I can make or answer calls without missing a snip! Technology is great!

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So even during the heart of winter we are trying to …

Have a fruitful day!

Tom Moelker

Thanks for the memories

Thanksgiving. You know the history. The holiday was established way back when the pilgrims celebrated their first harvest in 1621. So for a farmer it has a special meaning that ties us closely to the original celebration. Perhaps we farmers just feel a little more pilgrimmy(is that a word?) on Thanksgiving Day.

I always am annoyed by the way the marketing folks have twisted the purpose of the celebration. Words like “Thanksgetting” and “Thanksgathering” are substituted to try to sell products and change the focus of the day. It’s all about turkey and football and shopping it seems. Kinda drives me crazy. Why can’t we just have a day to thank our Creator for sustaining us through another year? Isn’t that why the holiday was established, after all? Ok, enough already. I’m starting to sound like Andy Rooney.

Thanksgiving has always been a favorite holiday for me. Perhaps because I grew up on a farm it did have that added sense of celebration. But 30 years ago this Thanksgiving week my dad, Jim Moelker, passed away after a very short battle with a very aggressive cancer. It was tough for all of us to lose him, and even though it has been a long time I can still remember that day as though it was yesterday. It made for a very difficult Thanksgiving week that year, and though time has eased the loss over the years, there is always a tinge of sadness attached to the season for me now. It didn’t seem fair at the time, and though my sense of “fair” has matured over the years it still touches my heart. Dad was a man who taught by example more than by words, and my knowledge of growing fruit for the most part came from him. He and my mom sacrificed a lot to raise us five children and teach us what was right. I don’t think we ever realized that at the time though. Working beside him every day created a different dynamic for me. Not only as father and son, but also teacher and student and perhaps even boss and employee? But we also fished, hunted and snowmobiled together and I learned a lot of life lessons from him. A multi-faceted relationship to say the least!

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Jim and Tom July 1981

The years since dad passed have taught me that thanksgiving isn’t just a reaction we feel quickly when we receive something we like. It goes much deeper than that. It is a peace, a quiet calmness that comes from knowing that whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in, God is there too, working on our behalf. And while we can’t always see it, I certainly didn’t back then, that knowledge can keep us truly thankful in good times or bad. Isn’t that what the holiday is really about?

So I hope you take some time to reflect on the people in your life this Thanksgiving season. They have been put there for a reason, and in many ways, great and small, they are a blessing to you. And take time to be a blessing to them too!

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In memory of Jim Moelker 1924-1986

Have a fruitful (and thankful) week!

Tom Moelker

Now what do we do?

And just like that, another harvest season is finished. With the exception of 3 or 4 bins of Granny Smith apples that won’t be ready for a few more days, everything else is picked. The long days of work that begin before sunrise and end long after dark have for the most part come to an end. This is not to say we are finished working for the season.  The orchards need to be prepared for winter. Everything needs to be mowed, sprayed for weeds (if time allows), and generally cleaned up. There is also plowing and preparing land for next spring’s planting. Irrigation systems need winterizing before the hard frosts begin. But the daily deadlines that characterize harvest time can be relaxed, and the work can be done during daylight hours.

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Granny Smith apples. Almost ready!

It always seems to end so abruptly. After weeks of being in the orchard all day with the harvest crew and then spending the evening putting the day’s harvest in the cooler, or loading it up to haul away the next morning, the daily grind actually slows down. It is almost hard to remember last spring when the  first green leaves appeared on long dormant trees. It seems so long ago. And yet when I look back at the season it mirrors the growth timeline of most every other year of my farming life. Green tipped buds turn to blossoms, which become fruit of ever increasing size, and finally develop into each unique variety of apple, pear or peach. Then the long hours of harvest, punctuated by weather, market demands, and sometimes inconsistent availability of laborers; seem to slow time to a standstill. I find myself wondering how the Creator has so much patience with me in the fall, while my own patience seems to evaporate completely at times. I need to step back and realize how much I truly am blessed.

As a family we are tied together by our work in the fall. Each person has their place in the everyday operation of the farm, the market and the bakery. And any task that falls in between those segments must be completed as well. While we are stretched, we are also pulled together in ways that non-farming families never realize. We work toward a common goal, and that takes cooperation, whether we feel like it or not (and sometimes we may not)! Because in the end, the machine that is our farm needs all of its many parts to function in order to be successful. Our employees are a very key part of all that goes on here in the fall. We couldn’t do this without them. And sometimes those parts also include friends and neighbors who lend a hand as well. We appreciate that more than they know!

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So as the harvest winds down, another growing season goes into our memory. Another  portrait of God’s faithfulness through the seasons is added to the gallery of now 109 years that the Moelker family has subsisted on this farm. Good crops, poor crops, life-changing family events all blend together in our memories to make the colors of that portrait. It is a treasure that we can look back on and learn from. And that lesson gives us faith for the future as well.

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker