Harvest time

Tomorrow is the official first day of Fall. Apparently Mother Nature got fooled again, because it is supposed to be 90 degrees outside! While some folks like the thought of another beach or cottage weekend in the sun, I would rather have some cool nights and temperate days in the low seventies. That seems more like harvest weather to me, and it is better for the apples too. Cool nights and sunny days make for crisp red apples!

We are marching along through harvest at a pretty fast pace now. Each day it seems we are picking another variety. And each day we are checking other kinds of apples to see what we will pick next. When I was younger, Dad would cut apples open to see if the seeds were dark brown yet. An indication of maturity, but not necessarily ripeness. That was determined by the very scientific taste test. Is it sweet enough? Is it still crunchy? It’s ready to go! Those are still very valid measures of ripeness, but now we quantify those  characteristics with devices that measure sugar content, starchiness, and firmness. We do these tests on the farm, and MSU also does a larger sample of each variety every week. They send us the data which tells us the pace at which varieties are ripening, and that helps us to plan and watch out for surprises. Because apples don’t always ripen in the same order every year. In a hot year, for instance, Gala will ripen ahead of McIntosh. In a cool summer it’s the other way around. This year was sort of average, and both varieties ripened at the same time!

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Pressure testing for crunchiness!

The cool weather we experienced during the first part of September was perfect for making apples red. We could see the color improve from day to day, it was that dramatic! But while the nice color was there, that didn’t mean the fruit was ready on the inside. Honeycrisp were a beautiful shade of red weeks ago. They looked gorgeous! But on the inside they tasted sour and immature. That is where testing comes in handy. And restraint. We don’t harvest them until the flavor is sweet and the apple is ready. Trust me, we tried them daily until we finally decided “It’s time!”

This hot weather is going to push apple ripeness along at a faster pace than normal. It also makes the harvesting, which is hard, heavy work, more uncomfortable. No air conditioning in the orchard. And while you are working in trees, it isn’t necessarily shady. Kudos to our harvest crew for their persistence! So we are ready for some cooler days and nights to give us, and the apples some relief! Sorry beach bums and cottage dwellers, you had your summer. Now let’s have some Fall! Frankly I can only taste so many apples a day!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

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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

I always wondered…

It’s a the busiest time of year for us here at the farm. Harvest is in full swing right now, and has been for many weeks. Added to that is the frenzy at the market and the bakery that keeps the girls hopping all day long! Together those tasks keep our family working long hours every day(except Sunday)! And on Saturdays it seems everything gets multiplied as families come out to buy apples and pick pumpkins, take a horse-drawn wagon ride, or just devour our fresh warm donuts and cold cider!

Along with all the customers come many questions about everything apples. Some questions are unique, but it seems we answer some repeatedly throughout the day. So in this weeks blog I’m going to answer some of our most-asked questions.

Do you sell all of your apples here? We sell a lot of apples here, but they also go to other places. Some go to a packing facility that packages them for grocery stores such as Meijer, Kroger and Costco. Others go to the company that makes fresh slices for McDonald’s and cubes for Wendy’s salads. Still others go to Gerber to be made into baby foods.

Do you use a machine to pick your apples? No. Every apple on this farm is picked by hand. There is not a machine available to pick apples as of yet, but work is being done worldwide to develop one.

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How do you know which trees are which–they all look the same! Think of it this way. You know what trees and flowers are planted in your back yard, especially if you did the planting. The same is true here. It’s just that our back yard is bigger than yours! We planted them and we spend every day taking care of them.

How many kinds of apples do you grow? We currently grow 26 varieties of apples. The earliest are ready in July, and the last we pick around the first of November.

What is the best way to store our apples? As cold as you can keep them without freezing them. We store our apples at 31-32 degrees. Apples freeze at 28 1/2 degrees. If you don’t have refrigerator space, a good place is in a large picnic cooler in your garage once the weather cools down. And do not store them with carrots. Carrots make apples ripen prematurely!

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Can we just take a walk in the orchards? Unfortunately, no. Our biggest corporate customers require us to have an extensive food safety program on our farm. One of the requirements limits severely who can and cannot be in our orchards.The general public is not allowed. We spend hours (and a lot of money) going through audits of this program in order to be able to sell to Costco, McDonald’s and other national customers.

What do you do in the winter, go to Florida? Sounds like a great idea! And we do take a week or two off in the winter. But the orchard work continues year around. Winter is when we prune our trees, repair equipment and prepare for the next season.

These are some of the most frequently asked questions that we hear in the fall. We enjoy answering them, along with many others. It is good to know that our customers are interested in the farm and the work that we do! And we encourage you to ask as well at any time. In the mean time…

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

A honey of an apple-part 2.

Last week I wrote about the history of the Honeycrisp apple and some of it’s characteristics. It is an awesome apple, but we often are asked why it costs more than other apples. I like to describe it this way. You know that one kid in every classroom that always needs extra attention? That’s Honeycrisp. It is the neediest apple in the orchard! It needs to be grown in cooler climates. Hot summers like this year are really hard  on this apple. Honeycrisp needs to be grown on lighter, sandier soil. It needs to be on a semi-weak tree. It needs to have a certain number of apples per tree. Too many and it won’t produce a crop next year. Too few and the fruit will be very big and more subject to internal disorders. It needs a certain amount of rain on a regular basis in order to not throw off the balance of nutrients in the apple and the tree. In short, Honeycrisp is THAT KID!

Remember that I said that the cells in the Honeycrisp are twice as big as those in other apples? While that makes for an amazing crunch and juicy goodness, it also presents an internal problem when the fruit is developing. You see, the cell walls are also very thin, and they are trying to contain all that juice. So they are very susceptible to breaking and causing a disease called bitterpit. You may have seen the little black freckles on a Honeycrisp apple that can develop over time. That’s bitterpit, and it is the apple grower’s nightmare! It typically doesn’t show up until a few weeks before harvest, and by then it is too late to do anything about it. Losses can be devastating, and sometimes despite all of the preventative measures we take, it still shows up. In fact, bitterpit can even develop after harvest while the apples are in refrigerated storage!

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So to deal with all of the needs, we have to treat Honeycrisp differently than all of the other apples. Weekly applications of calcium are made to try to strengthen cell walls. Tests to determine nutrient levels in the tree and the fruit so we can try to get them right. Choosing trees on root stocks that will produce a weak-ish tree (but not too weak). Finding the right soil on the farm to grow them. And hand thinning the crop to a certain number of fruits per tree. After harvest they have to be stored at 50 degree temps for a week before they can be stored with the other apples at 32 degrees.

Now I know this all sounds pretty daunting, and it is. And hopefully this will help explain the higher cost of the apples that result from all this extra work. But despite all of the obstacles to growing this prince of the apples, we still do it. Why? Because we love the taste and crunch just like you do. And when it turns out right there is nothing that compares!

Have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker