Spring anyone?

One of the perks of an outside job is staying highly attuned to the changes of the seasons.  Anyone would have noticed that last Saturday was crazy cold, with snow squalls and biting winds.  And most may have been aware that we nearly broke a record low (22!) on Saturday night.

But tonight while wandering the orchards I heard an unmistakable sign of Spring.  Spring Peepers.  They are tiny little frogs that you might mistake for a cricket.  They congregate around water, and are really the first sign of new life each year.  Read more about them, and listen to them, here.

I’m trying to track their appearance each year so that I can get a better idea of when each of our different fruits will bloom, and ultimately bear their first fruit.  Last year, the Peepers also began their chorus on March 30.  Quite the coincidence!  So if we see the same general amount of heating days over the next two weeks, we can expect plums to bloom on April 15.

But for now, I’m just happy to know that Spring has Sprung!

Apple Varieties – where do they come from?

Most fruit lovers know that of all the fruits out there, apples enjoy the distinction of having the greatest variety.  They are the nearly the only fruit or vegetable in the grocery aisle where variety is a major selling point.  Apples can taste sweet or tart, be snappy or mushy, hold their shape when cooked or just fall apart.  There are literally thousands of varieties of apples, with nearly 100 in common cultivation.

If you were to plant the seeds of an apple, you are very likely to end up with something that is not like the fruit it came from.  I recently saw a picture of the actual fruit produced from seedlings that all came from the same tree.  The fruit were incredibly diverse ranging in color from gold to red, and from small to large (I couldn’t taste them, but would be willing to bet that the taste was equally inconsistent).  So if apples don’t grow reliably from seed, how do apple growers produce a consistent product?

The answer was discovered over a hundred years ago as growers tried to “move” varieties from one place to another.  It turns out that apples are very tough plants and they can be grafted easily.  The graft is accomplished by taking tender bud wood (called the scion) from the desired plant, and inserting it into a freshly cut slit under the bark of the host apple tree.  When done correctly, the cells of the host and scion merge nicely at the graft, and allow the scion to continue growing into an exact replica of its original parent.  This is a kind of clonal reproduction that guarantees that there is no change to the variety over time.  A variation of this on small nursery trees is called budding, and it is pretty much the only way that apples are propagated today.

If we look back at the apples in common usage 200 years ago, they are typically soft, have thick skins, have rough patches on their skin called russetting, have a very short window for harvest, don’t store well, and generally wouldn’t compete well with today’s varieties in the grocery aisle.  But once there was a good solution in place to maintain and exactly propagate a variety, there was a lot of effort put into breeding.

Apple breeding is a very long term process taking anywhere between 15-30 years for results of a cross to be well understood.  New varieties usually come about in 3 ways: sexual crossing between existing varieties; volunteer seedlings that are “found”; and genetic mutations of existing apple wood.

Sexual crossing is a slow process because even with parent seeds from the same apple, the “child” trees may yield apples that are very different from each other.  Each seed must be grown to a mature tree before only the best trees are kept for future crosses or commercial propagation.  For example, the popular variety Honeycrisp was actually bred in the 60’s, so long ago that records of its exact parentage have been lost.  Nonetheless, this is the process whereby almost all brand new varieties are grown.  It is a slow, expensive process that is leading the industry to some major changes.  More about that in my next post.

The second method mentioned is where seedlings trees are identified as being somehow worthy of saving.  An example of this is the variety “York” which is still considered an excellent baking and processing apple.  It was found growing near York PA nearly 100 years ago, and saved.

The third method is very often used to improve an existing variety.  It is pretty common in an orchard to come upon a limb that acts a little differently than the rest of the tree.  Its apples may ripen earlier, or they may be redder, or they may taste a little different.  These “sports” are often identified by alert growers, and cuttings shipped to nurseries to serve as a cultivar of the parent variety.  This can cause a variety to change fairly quickly due to human-selected preferences in a variety.

For example, throughout the second half of the 20th century, Red Delicious was continuously selected for improvements to color and shape, such that the most modern strains are almost always 100% dark red with a pointy shape;  unfortunately the selection process also diminished the flavor of America’s favorite apple variety.  Gala has also changed: what started as a red blush over a yellow base has now been selected to be another red apple.  Fortunately, the taste has remained unchanged.

Future posts will examine the future of apple breeding.

Game over (already?)

OK, so even the casual reader will note that I didn’t do a very good job of updating my blog this season. That’s putting it mildly.

There are lots of good reasons for this, but they all come down to the simple fact that I don’t have much time.  See previous posts for an idea of why.  The 2014 growing season included many of the same challenges presented in 2013, most notably, maintenance issues.  Pretty much every piece of equipment had something go wrong with it at some point.  From collapsed buildings, to repairs on 70 year old refrigeration equipment, to rewiring of complicated irrigation systems, to tractor fires and more, I was never bored.

But now that the season is over and most of the money is in the bank (a later article on that perhaps?), since I didn’t make any other distracting posts during the growing season, let’s just do a quick analysis of my last post and see how well I did with my crop predictions.

Apricots – yep, they all froze.  Moreover, we actually lost a few trees when they never awoke from the long winter.  I’d like to plant more apricots, but it is difficult to find a variety that grows well here.  Our biggest problem is a disease called “bacterial spot”, which sounds dangerous, but simply causes ugly blotches on the fruit.  It doesn’t occur in dry climates, like California or Persia, but around here it thrives.

Strawberries – right again!  It was the best crop in a long time – maybe ever.  The plants went nuts and the moist soil pushed some really nice berries.  It will be a hard act to follow this year.

Peaches – right.  It was a good crop.  Most of the peaches did really well though we did have a block of peaches fail at the end of the season.  The trees are getting old and they seemed to just give up on their heavy crop.  Next time, I’ll throw some fertilizer at them at the first sign of trouble; maybe it would have helped.

Blueberries – right.  It was a great crop.  We had some freeze damage from the winter, but not enough to knock back the plants.  In fact, it is probably time for some serious pruning to help the plants produce bigger berries.

Cherries – my concerns were warranted.  It was another poor year for cherries, but at least we had a few.  Orchards to the north and west had almost no cherries at all.  I was once challenged by a customer who told me that cherries are too expensive.  The challenging crops of the last few years show why they are so costly.

Apples – I projected a good crop, heavy on Reds, light on Golds, and otherwise average.  I was happily wrong.  It was a huge crop.  We broke records on our Golds and hit benchmarks not seen for many years.  The quality was very good on our fresh eating apples, with a cool summer providing optimal coloring conditions.  Apple scab continued to be a problem, exacerbated by heavy rains in the spring; but the disease was largely limited to the processing apples so the economic damage was minimal.  The only downside to the crop was that everyone else in the country had a good crop too – in fact, a record crop – which lowered the wholesale price of apples yet again.  This is the classic problem with farming: if you have a good year, chances are good others did too, and the prices fall.

Raspberries – they didn’t grow as quickly as I would have liked, but after a shot of mid-summer fertilizer they perked up and provided some good snacking.  They should be well-positioned for a harvestable crop this year.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

We raise a few other crops that deserve mention.

The pumpkin crop this year was pretty good.  I devoted even larger fields to it this year, but yields didn’t seem to be quite as good as the last few years.  We grew a record variety of “curbits” (the technical word for squash/gourds/pumpkins) including some really tasty new squashes.  I really enjoy watching these form in the field because you always see a few interesting hybrids.  This year we found a unique orange and green “camouflage” squatty pumpkin that Jana quickly claimed as her own.  It was rock hard up to January when we finally decided to eat it, and were pleasantly surprised by how good it was.  I saved the seeds, but don’t really expect the sons and daughters to look like their parent.

Corn and soybeans were good for most farmers this year, but just average in my fields.  The wide variety of food and water on our farm makes an ideal habitat for deer, and deer love soybeans.  So between the deer, the groundhogs, and the hired spray applicator that missed two acres of beans, we had a highly average year of grain.  (And yes, the record harvest elsewhere pushed the price down to about half of what the price was just two years ago.)

All in all, it was a very good year.  But I’m happy for a little time off!

 

Game on.

image40Bloom is nearly over and I’m catching my breath.

Just 5 weeks ago, we still had temperatures in the teens, and it felt like winter.  Since then, we have pruned all of the peaches, planted several orchards, installed thousands of feet of irrigation, fertilized dozens of acres of different crops, fixed numerous pieces of equipment, and done lots of other work that would probably bore most of you.

It has been a very busy month and I’m very happy with how much has been done.  It is rewarding to look back at all of the obstacles: the weather, the breakdowns, the lack of help at key times… and know that we worked our way through it.

And the orchard looks GREAT!

So how is the crop year shaping up?

The apricots took a huge hit in the freeze of April 15.  That freeze hit at just the wrong time for them.  But it also damaged a lot of the peaches in the Carolinas and Virginia, so our wholesale prices could be good this year.  The businessman in me will gladly trade a few apricots for higher peach prices.

The strawberries look good – somewhat to my surprise.  It took them a long time to get going, but they are growing fast now, and the bloom at least on the Earlyglow variety looks good.  We’ll see if the later varieties came through the winter as well.  The patch is in very good condition – probably the best it has been in several years.

Peaches look good so far.  Pollination has just ended, and it is too early to say how big a crop it will be, but I don’t see any problems.  A full crop will be very welcome in a year that others have had challenges.

Blueberries look outstanding yet again.  They are in full bloom today and look very healthy.

Cherries had a decent bloom, but I’m not sure that the pollination went very well.  The weather was generally cold – and when it wasn’t cold it was raining – and when it wasn’t rainy or cold, it was windy.  None of those are good for flying insects.  At this point, some of the trees look poor, some look fair, and some look good.  We’ll see.

The apple bloom is variable.  In general, the trees that were heavy last year (Golds) are down a bit this year.  The trees that were light last year (Reds) are very heavy.  And the trees that had a nice manageable crop last year look perfect.  If thinning goes well, it should be a good year.

There is one more fruit to talk about this year.  Raspberries!  We planted a lot of them this spring, and look forward to selling them next year.  They are located right across the dirt road from the blueberries, so they will be in a great location for pick-your-own.

Stay tuned to the website or Facebook for our opening information.  We may miss Memorial Day this year due to the late start.  Best berry picking will likely be early June.

Ice and fruit trees

Now we’ve seen it all this winter.  Sub-zero temperatures, a big snow storm (over 18 inches here), and an ice storm that brought this end of the county enough tree damage to keep us out of power for 4 days.  It was fun for the first 2 days, bearable for day 3, and by day 4 we piled in with Mom and Dad!  We haven’t seen a winter like this in a long, long time!

So what’s it all mean to the fruit trees?  In my last post, I described the risks to the strawberries and peaches.  It is still too early to tell what kind of damage we may have seen there.

But one problem we probably don’t have is broken limbs due to ice damage.  Fruit trees are pruned annually, and are maintained so that they can support huge loads of fruit.  I strapped on the snowshoes and did some scouting this week, and as expected, there was very little damage to the trees.  Especially since almost all of the apples have been freshly pruned.

The other good thing about the snow is that it helps keep the roots of the trees cold.  When the roots are cool, the trees are less likely to get tricked into “waking” during the several-day warm spell this week.

Of course, the bad thing about the snow is that the local school districts here are up to something over a week of extra time into the summer vacation.  Which means that a lot of our pick-your-own strawberry customers may not be ready by the time our crop is ready (assuming the crop made it through the winter)…  So there is still plenty to worry about!

 

Snowday

About August last year – that is the stressful part of peach season – I started dreaming about snow days.  The idea of a forced day off at home with my family seemed a nice change from the sweat of summer and the stress of harvesting peaches.  Our new home is high on a hill, far back a quiet road, nestled against a deep forest.  It is the kind of place you want to get snowed in.

So here it is!  The snow is falling, the roads are impassable, the kids are out of school, and we are stuck.  I love it.  The children are playing nicely together.  There is a slow fire in the fireplace, the dog is curled at my feet, and there are plans for an afternoon of baking with all those wonderful fruits we saved from the growing season.

The only sign of discord is in my head, as an ancient Protestant work ethic reminds me of the predicted accomplishments in those summer dreams.  Our home is wonderful – pretty much exactly what we were looking for – but it still has a few loose ends.  The deck is mostly finished now… but mostly isn’t completely, and completion isn’t really possible today.  I tried to work on a paver walkway in December, but only got the excavation done before the weather got too bad to continue.  I’m working on an office, but I badly injured a finger yesterday and I don’t really want to go back to the table saw today.

The other thing to worry about is the weather.  Believe it or not, fruit growers need to worry about weather even in the winter.  To be sure, we worry a little less.  But this isn’t a normal winter.  You have probably noticed that we have seen the coldest temperatures since the early 90’s.  When temperatures get below 10, we start worrying about strawberries.  The cold snap during the first week of January took us down to 0, and because there was no snow on the ground, there is a good chance the strawberry buds were damaged. Only time will tell, and there is absolutely nothing to be done about it now – though in retrospect perhaps I should have mulched them with straw in December.  (On the other hand, is it worth that expense to save 1 crop in 20?)

The other crop that is at risk in cold weather is peaches.  We are pretty near the northern limit of commercial peach production and these extreme temperatures are the reason for that.  I remember as a kid watching the thermometer head south of 0 and wondering whether the peaches would pull through.  Some years they wouldn’t – and with nearly 25 years since a big winter-kill, we are overdue for a loss.  Especially concerning is the huge temperature swings we’ve seen this month.  Just before Christmas, we saw a day up to nearly 70 – it melted all the early season snow and exposed those strawberry buds.  It was still 50 at New Year’s, but then that “Arctic Vortex” dropped us 50 degrees in just a day. Trees don’t like those kinds of extremes.

But todays’ snow should help insulate against the forecasted bitter temperatures this week.  And I know I really can’t work on these house construction projects.  So maybe today I’ll just dedicate myself to my family “project.”

After all, that is our most important and rewarding priority.

Year 1. Done.

It’s just a memory now.  Or at least almost.  I still have a couple dozen bins of apples in the storage, and I still need to find a little time to dump the few pumpkins on the back porch that didn’t find a home.  But for the most part, the 2013 season – my first season managing the orchard – is history.  And yes, I’m happy about it!

My last post alluded to the sheer exhaustion we were all feeling, but that’s a memory now too.  After two nice big holidays with my family, and a five day family trip to the in-law’s in Indiana wherein I was forced to do pretty much nothing but sit, eat, rest, and shop…  I’m feeling pretty good!   Here in the extreme west of the time zone, I’ve even remembered how to sleep late!

This is just the kind of break we all need to reflect on the year behind, and think about what will be done differently in the coming year.  So here are some reflections and resolutions:

  1. Do something about the things that drive me nuts.  Some of those factors are outside of my control (weather), some are expensive to change (aging infrastructure), some take time and effort (planting new crops), and some are really pretty simple but somehow just keep getting ignored.  But one thing’s for sure, if something bothers me now, I’m pretty sure it is going to bother me in 10 years.  So it is better to fix it than ignore it.  (Kind of like the homeowner who installs new carpet just as they sell their home.)
  2. Organization is more important than ever.  We are growing a dozen different crops, sold through many channels and customers, with a score of employees, with more and more government “help” than ever.  A large business would have dedicated employees for all of those different things, but my business has me (and my wife).  We don’t have time to waste on inefficiency.  
  3. Stay ahead of the game.  Crop seasons wait for no man.  Pruning, fertilizing, planting, spraying, thinning, and harvesting all need to be done at exactly the right time.  This year, I’m going to sketch out all of the important things I know are going to need to be done.  Really, it is just project management.  I’ve got some experience in that; all we need to do is apply it to the big project of bringing the 2014 harvest home (and then selling it at a profit).  A project plan will make me feel more confident that all of the tasks are getting done at the right time.
  4. Identify those employees who can handle less supervision and turn them loose.  Some employees need to be told how to do everything; but some have the capability and motivation to see what needs to be done and find the right way to do it.  When I see those traits, I need to leverage it.  It frees me up to do more important stuff.
  5. Remember why I’m doing this.  It isn’t all about the money – though to quote George Bailey “it come in pretty handy down here bub!”  As we thought about designing our Christmas cards this year, we realized that we hadn’t taken a single picture of the family on the farm.  Nor had we spent more than a few minutes on the fun little paddleboat that Mom and Dad bought for the kids.  Heck, I didn’t even go fishing in the pond this year.  Yep.  We can do better.

So we move forward to 2014.  May the coming year be fruitful for all!

 

 

Fatigue

You may notice that my devotion to the Blog has waned a little.  It isn’t because I care any less about it; it has to do more with fatigue.

Fifty years ago, we pretty much raised apples and only apples.  But as the apple business in the East has waned, we’ve diversified the crops we grow.  Today, we find ourselves with a significant amount of fruit coming into season from May until late October.  Moreover, instead of selling all our fruit through pretty much one channel (wholesale), we now have an active retail market, sell through Farmers’ Markets, support local grocery stores, and sell to big packing houses.  We have to do this to make a profit.

Long story short, the days are longer than they’ve ever been in this business.  I’ve averaged 12 hours a day, six days a week, for six months straight without a single day off.  And the work is hard.  I’ve dropped two waist sizes despite enjoying desert with every meal.

I don’t think this problem is unique to my family.  In talking with another grower a few weeks ago, he too confessed to being worn out.  He offered me a friendly warning about the treadmill that this job can become.  He especially warned me about what would happen if we tried to expand the retail operation to 7 days a week.

So when people start to wax romantic about the farming lifestyle, I’m quick to correct them.  At least in my industry, the job is not slow-paced, quiet, or peaceful – at least for the professionals who want to make a living at it.  There are many benefits, but a forty hour work week is not one.

The good news is that there is an end in sight.  We are about 3 weeks away from the end of the harvest, and about 5 weeks away from Thanksgiving, at which point we can really give Thanks and maybe take a nap on a Thursday!

 

“What kind of fruit tree should I plant?”

I like the part of my job where I interact with customers.  I enjoy listening to their “likes” and I sometimes press them to understand what we can do better.  Many times during these conversations I get the question “what kind of fruit tree can I plant in my own property?”  Or sometimes, it is the more direct person who seeks me out to understand why a tree isn’t producing.

I had a conversation like this with a customer earlier in the week.  The family was enjoying some (very) late season blueberry picking, and wanted to know what kind of fruit trees they should plant on their half acre.

My response was “anything but apples.”  Most people have no idea how much work it takes to bring a high quality apple to market.  Other blog posts have described the pruning, thinning, and most of all, constant fight against diseases and insects.  The kind of apple trees that we grow today are not found anywhere in nature: they have been bred by people over hundreds of years for their ability to produce large tasty fruit, and not to survive untended in nature.  It is like comparing a friendly beagle to a wild wolf.  One of those can survive in nature, and the other won’t.

The cynic will think that my advice here is self-serving.  And it is, but not for the reasons you’d think.  Honestly, I wouldn’t miss the business from any single customer who decides to plant his own trees.  But untended fruit trees are huge vectors for disease and pests.

Consider the case of the plum pox virus several years ago in Adams County.  Out of nowhere, this virus arrived from Europe and threatened to completely destroy the peach industry in the mid-Atlantic.  There is no defence against the virus.  The Department of Agriculture worked quickly with local extension and growers to quarantine the area and destroy any trees that MAY have been infected.  Many acres of trees were simply pushed out and burned.  The good news is that this quick action actually worked and we are now free of the virus.

But what if every other house had a peach tree?  Would each of those homeowners be so quick to comply with destruction requests?  California teaches us that the answer is no.  They recently failed to stop a new pest (the citrus psyllid) that was initially found in backyard trees and moved quickly between backyard hosts.  The bug now is a major threat to California citrus.

So my advice is simple: unless you are willing to sign up for the great amount of care that fruit trees need, you shouldn’t raise them.  At best you’ll get mediocre fruit (probably good applesauce material), and at worst, you’ll put commercial growers at risk.

There are some great natural alternatives.  One of these I suggested to my new friend this week: the American Persimmon.  OK, a persimmon doesn’t taste like peach, but God put it here in this part of the world, and it will grow without a lot of fuss.  Our colonial ancestors thought very highly of this native plant and frequently planted them near their homes.  They are now rather hard to find, and could use a little help from people.  Picked late enough in the season, they are sweet and juicy, and very good for you.  And if you don’t get to them first, the deer will thank you too!

 

The problem with progress

Dad and I had a chance to slip away this week to go to a grower meeting in Adams  County.   Events like this are a good opportunity to see what other growers are doing, and learn from the Extension and Agriculture staff at Penn State.

One of the entomologists observed that it is much harder for growers today than it was 30-40 years ago.  Back then, there were a few standard sprays that could be applied on a fixed period, and as long as the period was maintained, they did a pretty good job of killing most of the pests.  But they were “broad spectrum” insecticides that killed most of the insects in the field.  Regulations enacted in the 90’s forced us to consider not only human health, but “environmental” considerations as part of the pesticide approval process.  Long story short, most of those insecticides are gone and were replaced with the idea of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

We subscribed to IPM early on, because it decreases the total cost of pest management while maintaining good quality.  The basic idea is that you monitor the bugs in your field, only treat when projected damage reaches an economic threshold, and then try to treat only the pests that are causing problems while maintaining as many predator insects as possible.  This requires a lot of vigilance by scouting for problems, and laying traps for the bad insects so that we can determine their populations.  It also requires a great deal of care in selecting sprays that target exactly the right pest at the right time, in order to do the least damage to the beneficial insects.  So where we used to have a half-dozen go-to sprays, we now have many more.

Which brings me back to the problem of progress.  In the “green revolution” of the 50’s and 60’s, the average extension agent may have projected that science would make fruit growing a lot easier by the next century.  But I don’t think it has turned out that way:

Where we used to have a few sprays, we now have many.  And we need to rotate their use so that they continue to maintain their effect on bugs that are always trying to evolve resistance.  And not only the bugs evolve, but so do people’s tolerance for anything synthetic.  Where there used to be a belief that science was advancing humankind, many people now are skeptical of anything man-made used to improve the quality of their food.

Our sprays are definitely safer (for the environment and for people).  But despite that, the regulations to use them are far more stringent, and some would say, inane.  It takes a good deal of work to figure out exactly how to comply with the constraints of re-entry period, pre-harvest interval, and maximum seasonal application quantities, all of which may differ by type of fruit even for the same chemical (don’t ask me why).  In other words, we have federal rules that say that a particular fruit with a particular spray is so safe, it can be eaten immediately after treatment, but it is unlawful for a worker to enter the field within 24 hours after treatment.  Say what?

And all of those regulations make the development cycle of new treatments very expensive.  It takes millions of dollars and many years to prove a new chemical is safe (for people and the environment) and effective.  And it needs to be proven on every crop that will be treated, which means lots of replication.  So many companies just skip the odd fruits because the cost is more than the benefit – which can lead to situations where there is no (legal) way to treat unusual fruits or vegetables against pests, which leads to continued monoculture.  (The Farm Bill provides some funds to help with this problem, which is another good reason to support that legislation.)

Future posts will examine the new complexities brought about by invasive species and pathogens.