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science

Posted 8/25/2016 8:36am by Ben Wenk.

NERDS!Welcome back, my fellow nerds!  When we last spoke, we were discussing frost damage and the science behind it and the conditions that affect it.  I feel like I owe you all a third and final entry on what happened this summer with the crop that survived.  But before that, let's go back to a topic we introduced last year around this time of year - measuring apple maturity.  If you recall from vol. I, it's common for these kinds of evaluations to start by qualitative analysis by people with color vision.  I'm not so great at the color vision thing, so I'm training myself in the more quantitative methods.  I referenced, in that entry, the penetrometer.  In this entry, you'll see it put to use.  Don't worry, it's safe to view at work!

 

Apple firmness, measured in pounds per square inch, is a common maturity analysis for apples destined to be processed into apple sauce, pie filling, juice, and cider.  There's a minimum pressure (16 psi) fruit processors require to receive fruit as "premium" - below this measure, pressure can be limiting in terms of which products can be made with this fruit.  While it's most useful for processing fruit, we're very familiar with what to expect for changes in firmness over time so it's also useful for fresh fruit analysis around here, especially when paired with spectrometer reading (see entry 1) and when you make multiple readings over time.  I'm hoping to start checking for starch with iodine as also referenced in entry 1 but for now, let's see just how this instrument is used.

 

Once you've assembled your penetrometer, the next step is to pick some fruit!  I usually start with the one that, visually, looks the "most ripe" or the one that picks the easiest - two qualitative visual cues.  Then, I try to pick another fruit that "representative of the rest of the tree" or block, in some cases.  This way, I can communicate to the harvest crew us how much of a spot-picking job this is going to be.  Some varieties ripen more uniformly than others.  The apple I'm testing in these shots is the new, syrupy sweet selection known as 'Blondie'.

 

Fruit in hand, we first use a knife (no farmer should be caught without one) to remove the fruit skin (above) - this is a measure of the firmness of the apple flesh.  We use a hand held penetrometer - great for field tests.  If you were conducting research using firmness as a metric, you'd need a bench model that insures even pressure, steady pressure, and a perfect perpendicular angle.  No such needs in our case, but one thing in common with both is a defined depth of penetration to remove that variable.  This close up shot shows the indented ring at which the reading is taken (right).  Then, holding the apple still on a firm, sturdy surface with one hand, the plunger shown in that picture is pushed into the flesh of the apple until the plunger reaches penetrates the distance from the bottom to that line.  When that line is achieved, you remove the penetrometer and take your reading.  The penetrometer is designed kind of like a high/low thermometer - the needle freezes at the maximum pressure applied.  So for the best reading, it's important to stop pushing after you hit that line - the apple flesh will get firmer the closer to the core you get.  Below are pictures of the penetrometer in action - keep in mind, the methodology described above doesn't leave a hand free so I'm attempting to steady the apple and push the penetrometer with the same hand (huzzah).  When you're trying this at home (ha!) without the camera, it's one hand on the fruit one hand applying even steady pressure at a perfect downward angle on the fruit. 


Blondie at 15.5 brix (not pictured) and 18.5 psi?  She's ready to go.  Enjoy those apples, nerds and be sure to check back in for more nerdy detail. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nerdy Ag I - Harvest Maturity vol. 1

Nerdy Ag II - Frost Damage vol. 1

Nerdy Ag III - Frost Damage, vol. 2

Posted 6/11/2015 5:45pm by Ben Wenk.

Dave and Ben with then-now-current PA Secretary of Ag and Young Farmer Enthusiast Russel ReddingI was asked for my reaction to the new bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Courtney & Gibson "Young Farmer Success Act of 2015", as described in this Mark Bittman editorial, that would classify those farming for ten years as public servants in the interest of student loan forgiveness.

 

First off, I love Mark Bittman.  He's a great mouthpiece for the change we need in our food system. 

 

And I love this editorial!  I actually have friends who have lobbied on behalf of the NYFC.  I also support Rep. Courtney's bill and think you should too but, as Mr. Bittman alludes to early on, the problem is not so simply solved.

 

In addition to the land access issue, young and beginning farmers are faced with a learning curve.  This is the part in this editorial where I point out how fortunate I am to have received a degree from PSU's College of Ag and that I have a family full (moreover, a community full) of experienced advisers and mentors in the field of agriculture, which is a pun that's tired but necessary in this case.

 

A young, motivated baccalaureate graduate doesn't make a successful farmer overnight.  That being said, I know plenty of them that have achieved success.  I also know plenty who have wanted to, tried to, and ultimately could not or are not farming presently due to a variety of circumstances.  The point of Bittman's article is that, should our society value food production as public service, as I agree we should, then loan forgiveness can solve one of these circumstances to which I'm referring.  Maybe it starts the cultural change that can bring the whole situation back into balance.

 

So often a posterchild for PSU AgSciencesIn a lot of ways, working on a farm has been considered an option of "those who couldn't attend college" for generations.  That's how we got to this point in the first place, right?  First off, education is a worthy pursuit any way you slice it - it's vital to understanding the richness of life any way you slice it.  And while it's not the case that "nothing about your liberal arts education will prepare you for farming" - if we're serious about farming as public service, let's find liberal arts colleges with student farming programs and support them - there are two fine one's in our backyard (Fulton Farm, Dickinson).  Let's be real about it - if farming is public service (and it is), tell your sons, daughters, nieces and nephews that farming is an impactful career choice (Cicero sure thought so).  Encourage them to learn the sciences!  Tell them about PASA, about FutureHarvest CASA.  I know it's not for everyone, but when I figured out I wanted to farm, I studied Ag Sciences.  It offered me incredible opportunities that were practical, applicable, and not easily learned "in the field" to recycle the expression again, to everyone's irritation.  Step one, let's get this bill passed and get some student loan relief for young and beginning farmers.  Step Two, let's complete this culture change and talk about farming as public service... not like it's a last resort for people who "couldn't do my job", for example.  While the mechanics of farming seem simple, making a farm a successful business (not to mention someday retiring) is incredibly difficult - it's not a lower percentile thing, so let's just put that whole notion to bed.  And Step Three, although education of ANY kind is, in and of itself, very important, the more science, training, and practical experience our new farmer-public servants have, the more likely they succeed.  Teach young farmers plant science!  

 

All this before we tackle the land access issue!

 

(or providing farming opportunities to minority and women farmers, but c'mon - I've only so much time I can devote to this stuff... I am farming here, afterall)