Monthly Archives: May 2013

So what does a farmer do all day?

When I was telling my friends back at Hershey that I was going to go run an orchard, I could tell most of them really had no idea what that involved.  Some of them would make references to “going to pick apples”, and pretty much everybody understood that it was hard work, and a few correctly surmised that I wasn’t doing it for the money.  But I’m pretty sure nobody knows what an apple grower does all day.  And that was the genesis of this blog.

Most of my weekly posts so far highlight something important that is going on in the orchard.  This one will give you a better understanding of where I spend my time.

The quick answer is simply this: fixing stuff that breaks.  I hate it, but it’s true.  It takes an incredible amount of equipment to run this place, and we can’t afford to replace it, so we spend a lot of time fixing things.  And we develop an impressive array of skills to manage this.  Here’s a listing of things my Dad and/or I (mostly Dad) have fixed in the last two or three weeks:

  1. Irrigation system “1”:  Found that mice had completely destroyed the control panel by gnawing through the wires.  I was able to apply a little knowledge from engineering school and identify the low voltage wire that triggered the main pump relay, and long story short, I hot-wired the system so that our berries could get water.  At which point we found two different major pipe breaks below ground that required excavation, and then some plumbing skills with PVC.  Still pending is the electronics work to get the wires spliced back together and repair the solenoid valves.
  2. Irrigation system “2”:  A crack in a pipe was causing a leak.  More plumbing.
  3. Sprayer fill station:  The suction line cracked and needed to be rebuilt.  More plumbing.
  4. The internet in the office kept failing: This is more complicated than it would appear because I’ve had to build a wireless bridge using high power antennas to get the signal where it needs to go.  I think the problem has been fixed by a new firmware on the router.
  5. Cold storage main blower:  Turned out to be a seized bearing that thankfully started working again with some powerful lubricant and a few prayers.  But since the system is nearly 90 years old (not kidding) I’m still worried about the long term stability.  Next week, we’ll start working on the backup system that seems to have a faulty compressor.
  6. Forklift 1:  Sticky contact terminal causing it not to move.  Fixed with a little TLC.
  7. Forklift 2:  Bad idle setting caused it to stall, and it needed brake fluid.
  8. Bulldozer:  (You really don’t want problems with a bulldozer.)  Bad starter turned out to be pretty easy to fix but still took hours to take off and reassemble.  Fixed.
  9. I’m pretty sure there was a flat tire or two.  There’s always a flat somewhere.
  10. Sprayer 1:  Major surgery to the agitator shaft.  Fixed.
  11. Sprayer 2:  Broken timing belt.  Fixed.
  12. Mower 1:  Pulled out of the mud.  Hammered out a shield that had been deflected into the blade.  Replaced drive guard and fixed PTO shaft.
  13. Mower 2:  Bled the fuel system after someone ran it out of diesel.  (Note: do NOT let a diesel run out of fuel.)
  14. Weed sprayer 1:  Repair to broken fitting involved fun with fiberglass and resin.
  15. ….  by now, if you are still reading, you’ve got the picture.  Fact is, I could go on.  There are actually more things we had to fix.

I’ve asked myself what we could do to minimize the time we need to put into this kind of thing.  I think the causes are pretty simple: 1) stuff is generally old; but really the bigger contributor is 2) it takes an incredible array of complex machines to make an orchard work, and they get a lot of use.  When you have so many old things working all the time, there are going to be problems.

So for now, we keep trying to fix the problems and find enough time to actually grow food.  On the bright side, we are scheduled to open our market and start picking strawberries.

It will be nice to actually see some fruits of our labor.

Only a few are chosen…

The bloom is almost over.  We have a few late apples (Rome Beauty) planted in the low spots that are still blooming, but for the most part, bloom is over and the bees have done their work.  We were worried about the number of native bees in the orchard this year, but once again, we see a pretty good “set.”  Now we turn our attention to thinning.

Thinning is the process of selectively removing all but a few of the tiny fruits so that the remaining fruit will achieve good size and color.  The earlier we complete the thinning process, the more time that the tree can focus its growth on the remaining fruit, resulting in higher quality.

Apples that need to be thinned.

Apples that need to be thinned.

For example, in the picture, taken today in our Gala block, you can see the results of that beautiful bloom.  Each ‘spur’ on the tree usually results in 4-6 blooms.  The center bloom is the “king” bloom and will have the largest fruit.  With even a 50% pollination rate, there are so many apples on the tree that if left untreated, the fruit would be small, and likely not develop uniform color because it would be shaded by its neighbors touching it.  In extreme cases, the growing process could even knock the apples off the tree as neighboring fruit jockeys for space.

In peaches, we start the thinning process even before the blossoms are pollinated.  The process is called blossom thinning and has only recently become mainstream.  Basically, the process involves knocking off about half of the blooms before they ever have a chance to develop.  Growers have developed some creative ways to blossom thin: from cordless drill-mounted wirlygigs, to tractor mounted whips that knock off blossoms, to the more manual hand-work.  No matter which method is used, the timing is critical as the blossoms only last a short while.  If the job is not done well, hand thinning will be necessary later in the season, with decreased quality and increased cost.  If thinning is not done at all, the grower is almost guaranteed an unsaleable crop.

In apples, the thinning process is more automated, but nearly an art form.  Almost all apples are thinned using sprays that are applied at exactly the right time at exactly the right quantity.  The calculus used in the decision process includes a lot of notes as to how those trees have reacted in the past to thinning, and also includes careful consideration of not only the current weather, but the weather forecasted over the next several days.  It turns out that more apples will drop if the weather will be cloudy and warm, and fewer will drop if the weather will be sunny and cool.  Scientists at Cornell have developed a model to codify these observations, but there is still a lot of room for error.

All these variables make apple thinning a pretty stressful time around the orchard.  This week’s forecast seems to have a lot of uncertainty with a forecasted easterly flow off the ocean that could lead to nearly constant cloudy weather with showers, or perhaps partly sunny skies with warm temperatures.  The difference could be significant for thinning.  Only time will tell.


…Bet you wish you were outside this week

In case you missed it, the weather this week was fabulous.

Fruit Growers, like all farmers, spend a lot of time outside.  If you have to work outside a lot, you tend to really appreciate it when it isn’t really hot, cold, wet, or windy.  This was one of those weeks when it was pretty near perfect.

It was also the week the majority of our orchard reached full bloom.  All of our apple varieties have reached peak bloom except for the Rome Beauty, which are always last.  Our Red Delicious has had an exceptional bloom.  Posted here are some of the pictures I took while working this week out in the fields.  Apple Bloom

What the pictures don’t capture is the scent.  Apple blossoms are wonderfully fragrant, and when you put a million of those flowers in one place… well, it is kind of nice!

There is one other sense that you probably wouldn’t expect to be exercised in a blooming orchard.  It is the sound of bloom.  All of those little flowers are really there not for our enjoyment, but to fulfil the biological imperative of reproduction, and they need help.  The sound comes from all of the insects that find their way to the orchard and play their part in nature’s cycle.  Funny enough, the sound of these creatures has changed through the years.

We used to import domestic honey bees, but this has become increasingly expensive.  When I was young, we’d have dozens of hives around the orchard for a couple weeks and there was a constant droning sound in the apples.  But these days we rely more on native insects.  We are very (very) careful about the chemicals we use, and so far we’ve seen good results from all kinds of insects that you would normally not notice.  Bumblebees are the most conspicuous, but we see lots of smaller bees, flies, and other insects too.  They have a more diverse, and softer sound.

Hopefully they’ve been enjoying this nice weather too!

Yes, that's the front of a Ford tractor!