Monthly Archives: June 2013

What could make this job worthwhile?

There aren’t many people around who have really been in my shoes.

If you had a very secure career, making very good money with benefits, retirement, and health insurance, what would it take for you to give it up?

I’m not ready to over-analyze my own decision process, but I did have a few conversations with customers this week in the cherry orchards that made me smile and feel more comfortable with my own path.

When someone says, “we’re so glad you are here!”, it has to give you a warm feeling.  Our customer has been visiting our farm for years with her family and she just wanted to tell me that she loved visiting our farm and was happy to know that it would still be here in the future.

Or another old friend who stopped me and reintroduced herself and was excited to know I was back in the area.  …And that I had brought my beautiful family with me

Or the perfect stranger I met at a Wegman’s grower event a couple years ago who was motivated to send me a very heartfelt letter thanking us for what we do and encouraging us to maintain the farm for years to come.

I can’t put a price on these things.  I just know it feels good to be appreciated.

Thank you.

Timing is everything in this job

Most people probably realize that seasonal variations can make a big difference in the yield for a farm.  For example, if there is a season-long drought, there will be smaller fruit and potentially lower quality.  But the fact is that even the difference of a few hours or days can make a big difference to the bottom line.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the impacts of weather and timing on both thinning and frost damage.  It is only now that we’re really able to see the impacts of those weather events on the apple yield for the season.  As it turns out, the weather didn’t do us many favors this spring as the apple crop seems to be pretty light, especially for Red Delicious which constitutes a high percentage of our plantings.  It looks like the cold weather that occured right before thinning combined with the hot weather just after thinning to really knock back the final “set” of apples on the tree.  A couple days variance in either direction for either of those weather events probably would have made a difference.

Timing also impacts us on a longer horizon.  This past weekend was Father’s Day, and that is always our signal to plant the pumpkins.  Big jack-o-lantern pumpkins have a 110 day horizon to maturity, so if you want nice pumpkins on October 1, you better get them in the ground by mid June (and have them ordered the weeks before that).  So we’ve been working really hard to get them in now.  But the timing doesn’t end there…  because once the pumpkins are planted the weeds over them need to be killed before the pumpkin sprouts, because after the pumpkin is above ground, there are no chemical methods that will kill the weeds without killing the pumpkins.  But the timing doesn’t end there…  because once the pumpkins are safely “up”, it is a good idea to apply a pre-merge control so that no new weeds come up.  All with the goal of raising beautiful pumpkins instead of beautiful weeds.

We also see the impact of timing in markets.  We work very hard raising as much as we can ourselves, but the fact is that we don’t have the time or equipment to raise all the vegetables we sell in our market by ourselves, so we buy it locally.  It is interesting to see at our local auction how variable the bids can be for similar items across different days.  The variance can be huge, and for no seemingly good reason except who happens to show up and what they need (or have) that day.

Which all goes to show that it isn’t enough to just do the right thing in this business…  you have to do the right thing at exactly the right time.

Be careful what you wish for…

I ended my last post with a wish that it would rain.  And for good reason.  We were getting dry here, with a spring that was several inches shy of normal rainfall.  Those berries that weren’t irrigated were starting to show signs of stress, and the ponds were starting to get low already from the berries that were irrigated.

And then it rained.  And rained some more.  And as I’m writing it is still pouring.  Over 3″ of rain here in the last 4 days.  Which normally wouldn’t be a problem, except that we’re heading into the one and only crop that really hates rain:  cherries.

Cherry trees grow well in our climate; you can find wild versions in most of the woods around here.  Commerial cherries have been bred for beautiful size and taste, but they don’t have much tolerance for rain.  As a cherry begins to ripen, it becomes highly vulnerable to splitting if exposed to too much moisture.  It literally rips apart with a gash down the middle of the fruit.

This is one reason that the Pacific Northwest is such a good place to grow cherries, because several hundred miles from the Pacific, there is very little rainfall, and they have access to huge reserves of publically funded waterworks from which to draw irrigation water in just the quantities needed to keep the trees growing.  Around here, we rely a little more on mother nature, and she isn’t always very reliable.

One option is to erect “high tunnels” which are essentially inexpensive greenhouses over the cherries.  This keeps excess rain off the trees and helps control against birds.  Inexpensive is a relative term here.  It involves many thousands of dollars and makes some chores that involve tractor work more difficult.  Still, some growers in Adams County are trying it.  This might be the year those tunnels pay off for them.

We’ll see.  Most of our cherries are still just beginning to turn color, so maybe the rain is early enough for them.  If they don’t split, don’t rot, and the crows don’t get them, it will be a very nice crop.  Stay tuned!



Opening Week

Jana and I made our first dollar as fruit growers this past Monday.  It was rather unexpected actually.  Two weeks ago, we didn’t think it would be possible that the berries would be ready by our traditional opening on Memorial Day.  It was still very cool, with highs struggling to get out of the 60’s, and the plants just wouldn’t stop blooming to grow.  Two warm days changed that, and by last Friday I was thinking that maybe we needed to pick the field soon.  By Sunday it was clear that we’d need to have a “soft” opening on Memorial day with just ready-pick berries.

Then just as we were finally ready to open the patch for pick-your-own on Tuesday, the heat wave hit.  We went from cool cloudy weather to sunny and hot, and not just one day of sunny and hot, but five days of summer-like, humid, 90-degree Berumuda high pressure.  It felt like peach season.  I was amazed that people were tough enough to come out and pick in the hot sun.

Strawberries, at least the kind we grow around here, are a cool weather crop.  When hit with this kind of heat, they don’t size properly and they go on defence – just trying NOT to turn to mush in the sun.  Fortunately, we had a new field with irrigation.  This helped, but it wasn’t the opening week I would have wanted.  By Saturday afternoon, picking was getting hard and we were waiving our usual minimum charge.

I think most of you were happy with the berries we did have (and to be sure, there were lots of nice ones)  but after all the work we’ve done out there, I was hoping for better.

Maybe it’s appropriate to have some missed expectations right off the bat.  Even when we do everything to the best of our ability, things will go wrong in this business, and there is nothing – absolutely nothing – we can do about it.  Rather than focus on those missed expectations, it is more constructive to look ahead.

Next week will be cooler, and thanks to the irrigation, our later variety plants look very healthy and should give us a good second wave of berries.  At least, that’s my hope!

…Now if it would just rain…