What’s happening on the farm this week? More tree-planting, more spraying, more worrying about the cold weather, and a talk with workers about farm and orchard safety regulations and Covid-19 rules.
Read on for this week’s report from my brother, Dean Johnson, and his daughter/my niece, Heatherlyn Johnson, who are part of Johnson Farms north of Mapleton.
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Is the Crop Freezing?
The short answer is, yes. “I see damage everywhere,” says Dean. “So there’s damage, but how severe? We’ll probably know in a couple of days. It’s easier when the blossoms come out and you can just look in the middle.”
In last week’s report, I mentioned that the farmers were cutting into the buds to check for frost damage. If the bud is brown inside, that means it’s dead. If it’s green, that means it’s ok.
This week, some of the crops are starting to blossom – namely, sweet cherries. So farmers no longer have to cut into the bud to check for damage. Now they can see it by looking in the middle of the blossom. If it’s black, that means it’s frozen and will not produce fruit.
“So we’re checking all our blossoms to see what kind of crop we’ve got,” says Dean. “You try not to get too bummed out. We’re still gonna have a crop somehow. You just have to go with whatever you’ve got.”
I ventured out back to a sweet cherry orchard to see if I could find some black blossoms, and sure enough, I did. Not a lot, but a few on the trees I checked. Here’s a photo of one below. The black spot you see on the right-hand blossom is black, meaning it’s frozen.
And here’s a photo that Ginny Coulter, owner of Old Mission Flowers, sent me with snow on the blossoms. This is across the road from her place on the corner of Ladd Road and Center Road, in her brother Fred Dohm’s orchard.
Warming Up the Orchards
When you drive along Old Mission Peninsula roads, you might see tall poles in the orchards that resemble windmills. In reality, these are wind machines made specifically for agricultural use, to help keep the crops from freezing.
Lenny Ligon has several in his orchards on the corner of Peninsula Drive and Old Mission Road. And Dean has one in his apple orchard on a parcel of land we call “The Forty,” on the corner of Peninsula Drive and Kroupa Road. They’ve both had their wind machines running during the colder temperatures the past few weeks. Dean’s is an Orchard-Rite Wind Machine, which you can read more about here.
There’s a lot of science involved with these machines, but the basic premise is that they move air down, which warms up the orchards. “If we can get even two or three degrees out of it, it’ll keep the blooms from freezing,” says Dean.
Wind machines are just one way to warm up the orchards. The old-fashioned smudge pots are another, placed every few trees and lit at night. On the bigger farms, they’ll even run helicopters overhead all night to pull that warm air down.
Spraying for Rot and Insects
Now that the trees are starting to bloom, farmers will be spraying for a variety of diseases and insects and can easily spend more than $100,000 on spray material during the growing season.
Whereas some of the older, more toxic chemicals would cover a number of insects in one fell swoop, these days farmers will spray different chemicals for specific types of insects and conditions. The chemical companies will often send people out to help the farmers determine what to spray for during any given week.
While it’s more difficult to keep track of what gets sprayed and when, the current-day chemicals (like the mineral oil mentioned last week) are much better and safer than older chemicals like parathion and DDT used in previous generations. Those are just two of the chemicals used back then that are now banned in most countries.
One of the things Old Mission Peninsula farmers are starting to spray for right now is brown rot or blossom blight, which is accelerated by the wet spring weather.
It’s also a balancing act with the beehives that are currently in the orchards. Farmers can’t spray pesticides in orchards where the bees are located. Right now, the bees are in the cherry orchards, “so I can spray for brown rot,” says Dean, “but I can’t spray any poisons until I move the bees out.”
Next, the bees will be moved to the apple orchards, as they start to bloom. The bloom progression generally goes like this: sweet cherries, tart cherries, and then apples.
And about those non-motorized trails being discussed in Peninsula Township that I mentioned last week? Dean reminded me that not only are people not allowed in the orchards after they’ve been sprayed, it’s actually against the law, as noted on all the chemical packages.
Regardless of whether orchards have been sprayed or not, workers are also required to sign in and out of orchards all year long because of food safety regulations.
Covid Rules, Orchard/Food Safety Laws and Farm Audits
This week, Dean’s daughter (my niece), Heatherlyn Johnson, gathered the workers together in the shop to talk about orchard and food safety laws and Covid-19 rules. As I mentioned in last week’s report, the agricultural industry is extremely regulated these days, and Heather handles the vast amounts of paperwork, documentation, and farm audits, working with someone hired by Johnson Farms to be a liaison between the farm and the inspectors.
At the meeting with the farm workers, Heather went over some of the safety guidelines and regulations, including things like not leaving any garbage in the orchards, not eating in the orchards (only water is allowed), not entering the orchards after the sprayers have been through, ensuring that all rules are followed with chemical applications (including documentation and a chemical inventory every month), and alerting the bosses/farmers if there are people in the orchards who are not allowed to be there.
Add in all the rules surrounding Covid-19, like social distancing, wearing masks, getting tested and vaccinated, and there’s more to keep track of on the farm than ever before.
Dean notes that it’s all part of the food safety laws. There are basically three that must be followed – the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Primus, and the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). Farms of every size, including Johnson Farms, are audited to ensure compliance. If a farmer is found in violation, they’re not allowed to sell their fruit.
“Your farms are all identified, all the blocks have to be identified, what you spray has to be written down, your water has to be tested, and it just goes on and on,” says Dean. “Everything has to be documented. In the old days, everybody just went out and sprayed and you didn’t worry about it. Now, you can’t fool around with this stuff.”