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Happy Spring! A Farm Update

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Happy Spring! We thought we’d ring in the Spring Equinox with an informative post about how the farm is doing in anticipation of our 2017 growing season. We want you to know all the juicy deets [HA! Get it? Juicy?!] – how our trees fared this winter, what to expect this growing season, and to provide you with some more info regarding where the magic happens.

Here are the FUNdamental facts about our farm [oh jeez, another bad joke]. Red Jacket Orchards is located in Geneva, NY, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region, on 600 acres of pristine land overlooking Seneca Lake. Our farm was founded by the Nicholson family in 1958 and is now run by the 2nd and 3rd generations of Nicholsons – Joe, Brian, and Mark. We grow many delicious fruits – over 300 acres of apples, nearly 250 acres of apricots, sweet cherries, plums, strawberries, currants, blueberries, and more, using our base commitment of IPM practices (Integrated Pest Management). Though, it is worth noting that we have established several acres of transitional organic orchards and our hopes are to dramatically increase organic production over the next few years. Another fun fact about Red Jacket Orchards; we are the largest apricot orchard on the east coast! AND, we take CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) seriously, cooperating with our beekeepers to minimize threats to honey bee and local native pollinator populations. In fact, in 2012, we installed bee boxes around our orchards to help attract and establish populations of native pollinators in addition to our population of traditional honey bees.

Now, for the most current updates about our buzzing farm (HA – we’re on a ROLL!) We sat down with Matt Murphy, Assistant Farm Manager of Red Jacket Orchards, to talk shop. Matt’s been with RJO since 2015. After getting his degree in Viticulture & Enology from Cornell University, Matt was introduced to RJO at the PMA (Produce Marketing Association) conference in Anaheim and knew it’s where he wanted to be. On any given day, Matt is responsible for meeting with the farm workers and managing the logistics and tasks of the day.

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How has the winter been for the farm?
This winter started off great – mild and even for our trees and crops. February was a little unpredictable with some warm temperatures followed by some really cold temperatures – a cold snap, if you will. Fluctuating temperatures like this tends to be unsavory for fruit trees. Stone fruits (ie. peaches, plums, apricots) are generally more susceptible to damage under cold snap conditions. But, it looks like we should be in good shape to have a healthy stone fruit crop this year and our apples were unaffected. Actually, you only need about 10-15% of flower on a tree to receive a full crop! So, sometimes a cold snap is actually helpful to thin out the flowers on a tree and cut down on the pruning we need to do ourselves.

How are the crops progressing? Is it going to be a good year? Yield?
Though it’s too early to tell what our yield will be, we can say that “crops” are progressing. Right now we are checking for tree buds and the health of such buds. It appears that it will be a good year for RJO.

And how do you tell?
We check the health of buds by taking samples of branches [with buds] from several different parts of the orchard. Then, we crunch some numbers to get an idea of what percentage of the orchard will likely flower, and therefore produce fruit.

Once we acquire the branch samples [with buds], we cut the buds in half – if they are green in the center that generally means the tree is healthy and will flower. If the center of the bud is brown that means the bud is dead and the tree will not flower. An alternative method we use is to put the branches in water and watch them – if they grow or the buds continue to open, then the tree is in good shape to fruit. If they don’t grow, that means the buds are dead and the tree will not produce fruit.  

FullSizeRender (27) copyAny foreseen challenges this growing season? How are these challenges the same or different from last season?
Last season brought small yields to our apple and stone fruit crops (ie. peaches, plums, apricots). This was a result of low winter temperatures in 2015/2016 that killed many apricot buds, followed by a late spring frost that wiped out many peach and plum buds. These extreme weather conditions were then followed by record drought in the summer which affected the apple crop – resulting in apples that were too small to harvest. Apples need water to size up and get big and juicy. Without enough water, they stay small and hard and make them inedible.

This year, we are installing more drip irrigation to offset any potential issues with drought. At this time, we’re not sure what the climate will bring, but are confident that, with 60 years of experience under our belts, we can handle any challenge that Mother Nature throws at us.

What do the next couple of months look like? When is the first harvest typically?
During the Spring season, our efforts are focused on pruning and checking buds on crops. Then we shift to harvest season tasks such as fruit sampling, checking on ripening, harvesting, laying irrigation, and more. This year we’ll be replacing about 20-30 acres of old orchard, which has slowed production, with younger apple trees. Harvest season begins in June with our Rhubarb and Strawberry crops.

Thanks to Matt for taking the time to chat; running a 600 acre farm is no small feat and certainly doesn’t lend itself to ample free time to sit in one place and chat! Also, it’s worth noting that many of the pictures of the fields and orchards are snapped by Matt himself, even the images used on this blog post. We thank him for giving us that up-close-and-personal look at RJO.