Orchard problems

Luke Steffen stands in the blueberry patch on his family’s fruit farm at Fort Atkinson, thankful that the family was still able to offer blueberries for sale. They provided cherries for customers as always but they were not grown on the Steffen’s farm because of last winter’s freezing. Winter weather hindered cherry production this year.

KOSHKONONG — Dairy and grain farmers are not the only ones struggling this year.

Luke Steffen says that January’s sub-zero temperatures killed almost all of the cherry trees at Steffen Cherry Orchard, forcing the family to bring in cherries grown in Michigan to supply their customer needs until the next trees, planted a couple of years ago, are ready to produce.

The family did have plenty of blueberries for their customers, however, as they have seemed to survive the winter well. So did the 150 apple trees on the farm.

Located along McIntyre Road in the Town of Koshkonong, south of Fort Atkinson, Steffens Cherry Orchard was started by Luke’s parents in 1981 when his dad, Jaime, planted 400 cherry trees. It eventually grew to about 2,000 trees, yet it is not a full-time business.

The family simply wanted to grow something unique on the family farm where his great-grandfather started his dairy farm when he came to the United States from Switzerland.

Along with planting the many acres of cherry trees, they also built a processing room that is abuzz most summers. After customers pick their cherries, the fruit is washed and run through the pitting machine.

“Cherries should be washed before eating them because they get bird droppings on them,” Luke Steffen noted. “The water needs to be very cold, especially if putting them through the pitting machine, because it keeps the cherries firm.”

The pitting machine will remove pits from a gallon of cherries in just 20 seconds.

Following the winter kill this year, to accommodate their customers, the family partnered with an orchard in Michigan and took orders for cherries.

They do have another orchard started, however.

“From the time the trees are planted until they produce is three or four years,” Steffen said. “Two years ago, we planted trees we ordered from Saskatchewan. They are a new variety, which is why they survived last winter.”

He said the loss of the trees in their orchard was due to a combination of several nights of 35-below-zero temperatures with wind and some leaf spot that had weakened the trees.

“We also had some leaf spot that caused the leaves to turn brown and fall off early last fall. If the leaves fall from a tree early they are unprotected from winter because in a normal year, the tree draws nutrients from the leaves before they turn color and fall,” he said.

“We also had a problem with Japanese beetles and that will weaken trees, too,” he added.

In their orchard, they train the trees to grow at an angle so the branches don’t break from the weight of the berries.

Steffen pointed out that these are just some of the acts of nature that can make it challenging to grow fruit trees.

“Every plant on this farm has its own trickle irrigation underground,” he said. “We have miles of pipe buried in our orchard.

“In the summer of 2012, we went 60 days without rain and the trees would have died then without that water,” he recalled. “We can also fertilize through it.”

The blueberries are a relatively newer venture for the family. They established the high bush plants eight years ago.

The cold weather last winter caused the blueberries to be a little under foliated, but there still are plenty of berries on each bush.

This summer, the Steffens hosted a tour of 4-H members as a part of an agricultural careers tour in Dodge and Jefferson counties. The tour helped young people understand the risks that are involved in all types of farming, but also showed them that risks can be overcome.

He advised the youths, “If you are going to start any kind of business, think about the things that can go wrong and have a backup plan.”

He also pointed out that an orchard requires a big initial investment before any profits can be realized.

“We are passionate about having fresh fruit and offering people the opportunity to pick their own healthy food,” he said.

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