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. ūüėČ

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

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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

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

 

Logging in–oldstyle

We recently took delivery of some new 18 bushel apple bins for holding¬†harvested apples. They are all tucked inside out of the weather waiting for the fall harvest to begin. While walking past them the other day, I was reminded of a time way back in the early 1970’s when my dad, Jim, first began using big bulk bins instead of bushel crates. And made them himself. From scratch. Well, at least from trees that he cut down from our woods along the river on the back of our farm.

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Dad was good with a chainsaw. He could fell a tree pretty much where he wanted it to fall. When I was young I thought maybe he had been a professional logger or something. The neighbors knew it too. When they needed a tree cut down and it was a dicey situation, it was “…better get Jim over here to do it.” So cutting some big oaks for apple bins wasn’t a big deal for ¬†him. The trouble was where they were located. Down along the river which was at the bottom of a steep 150 foot hill. We couldn’t drive a tractor down there, so getting them to the top was a daunting task.

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Dad had a long steel cable that was about¬†an inch thick; it was probably a couple hundred feet long. After the logs were cut into 10 or 12 foot lengths, he would hook a chain around one end and fasten the cable to the chain. The cable went up the hill and was attached to the Allis Chalmers D-17 tractor that was the mainstay of the farm. Then up the hill he would climb to the tractor, leaving me by the log with a “cant hook,” a long wooden handled tool with a large hook on the end. Cant hooks were used to roll a log over on the ground. Then dad would get on the tractor and begin to pull the log.

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The hill was fairly heavily wooded. Getting a log up to the top without it getting stuck on another standing tree or stump was almost impossible. I followed the log up the hill as it crawled along. I couldn’t see dad, and he couldn’t see or hear me over the noise of the tractor. It was kind of eerie watching the log silently sliding up the hill with no sound of the tractor above. If the log got hung up on a tree I was supposed to yell to dad and warn him. Funny thing is that he never would hear me from where he was. His warning was that the tractor would come to a sudden stop! Then he would appear at the top of the hill. “What happened?” he would shout. “It’s stuck on a tree” I would answer. “Why didn’t you yell?!” I laugh about that now. I didn’t think it was funny then.

Sometimes I could get it rolled free by myself. Sometimes dad would have to come down and help me. But by the end of the day there were logs on top of the hill and we were both ¬†tired. And I was hoarse from yelling so much. Dad would load the logs on our flatbed truck with the rear-mounted forklift on the tractor. It was good that mom wasn’t there to see the front wheels of the tractor come off the ground under the weight of the heavy log on the back. That wouldn’t have gone well. And the next day…well, I’ll write about that next time!

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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¬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

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

Christmas reflections

It is just a few days before Christmas. I don’t know why, but this week always marks the passage of a year for me. Even more¬†so than the Old Year’s/New Year’s celebration. The busy Christmas shopping at our market and bakery, the making of fruit baskets, gift baskets, and boxes for shipping, all ends at Christmas Eve. After all the anticipation of the holidays and the frenzy of shopping and shipping deadlines,¬†the last customer has been helped and it seems too quiet, too calm. What lies ahead now is a long winter of tree pruning, a very solitary task.

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I enjoy the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We settle into a holiday season where our usual selling of apples is punctuated by unique requests for special gifts for friends and family, both near and far away. It is fun to interact and imagine someone opening a box of Honeycrisp apples in Texas, or a salsa sampler in Colorado. Or a business associate receiving a gift basket of goodies from the bakery and market. I guess that bringing joy to people is what gives me a lot of satisfaction throughout the season.

When I was young, Christmas was a time of such excitement and anticipation! As a kid I probably didn’t think so much about giving gifts as I did getting them. And it was so fun to get to Christmas day! What would be under the tree? We rarely knew what was coming, and that made it all the more fun! Lincoln Logs, Matchbox cars, or a new Flexible Flyer sled, how much better could it get? Even the new blue jeans, dark, dark blue and so stiff that they would almost stand up by themselves (and abrasive to wear for the first couple weeks!) Winter boots, hats, or mittens were a staple too. And all were thoroughly tested out before the day’s end.

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Now that I am older, I think the giving part is more fun. Maybe that’s why I like to work in the market in December. Whenever someone leaves holding a gift basket or box, I feel a little like I’m giving it too. What fun! Whoever said it more blessed to give than receive was right. And I’ll bet they were older too.

I hope this Christmas is a joyful one for all of you. I hope that whatever your circumstances, you get to treasure time together with family and friends, giving and receiving and sharing with one another. And I hope that together we all celebrate and receive the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ. Because besides being the reason we celebrate this time of year, He is the best example of giving and receiving that we could ever have.

Merry Christmas! And have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker