Many people love a real Christmas tree
FINGER LAKES--The day after Thanksgiving is Green Friday for Christmas tree farmers. Most local tree-growers open their doors for the start of the season that morning, hoping to welcome the sort of holiday shoppers who want to decorate their home with the sight and scent of a fresh Christmas tree.
A lot of unseen work goes into growing Christmas trees. "You can live out amongst the trees if you want--there's always something to do," says Jim O'Brien, proprietor of Buttonwood Tree Farm, Route 14A, Watkins Glen. He bought an established farm five years ago, and has kept up the tradition, planting new trees every year.
"This year we planted 1,000 trees--and due to the drought, they all died," O'Brien notes. At a cost of $2 per seedling, that's a sizable loss. "It's almost more a hobby than a real profitable business. It takes eight to 10 years before they're marketable--some grow well and some have hollow spots. You're mowing, trimming--imagine the work of mowing around half a dozen trees in your yard and multiply that by 10,000. You have to enjoy it. And really, what you're selling is not only a tree. You're helping folks with a tradition."
The tradition typically begins for the farmer at least seven years before the first Christmas tree may be offered for sale. Rodney VanDerZee, about to offer trees to customers for the first time at his family farm on Stillwell Road between Ithaca and Watkins Glen, used to joke with his wife they'd go into significant debt before they sold their first tree. The joke has become a reality. "I told my wife from the beginning this was going to be a long-term commitment."
His father had always wanted to plant Christmas trees on the family farm, and ten years after his father's death, VanDerZee, who owns two restaurants in Maryland, began the process. Planting each April has become a sort of family reunion, with brothers and cousins helping with the 2500 or so trees that have to go into the ground each year. This year, 80 percent of their new plantings were lost to drought. "That's happened twice in seven years," VanDerZee says. "We'll just come back and do it again next year." The loss of this year's seedlings will be most seriously felt in the 2023 holiday season.
"I look at it as a hobby. I'm retired, and it's a fun thing to do because I'm outdoors in nature where I want to be, watching the animals and the birds," says Bob Taylor, owner of Scottish Glen Bed and Breakfast in Starkey, which is also a Christmas tree farm. His fields are mowed, his trees are trimmed, he's ready for opening day.
Taylor says most customers are looking for trees in the range of about six feet tall, sometimes a little bigger or a little smaller. Occasionally someone will request a "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree (something slightly sparse and scraggly) but after looking over the competition, they usually opt for a better one.
Bill O'Neill, co-owner of Spruce Run Tree Farm on Post Creek Road in Beaver Dams, says cutting your own real Christmas tree is ecological. They're renewable, local and they're not plastic, he says. "And most towns collect them and shred them for recycling as mulch. We do that here, too. It's good for the environment."
Many of the tree farm owners put an extra effort into making the choosing of your greens a destination event. They decorate their farms festively and sometimes offer refreshments on busy days. Scottish Glen is offering a Boy Scout Day Dec. 3 when scouts will assist customers with cutting, carrying and baling their chosen tree; hot dogs and hay rides are also part of the festivities. VanDerZee will have hot food available, bonfires and offer some new tree-and-stand technology with a new machine that drills a hole at the bottom of the tree to fit the stand. Most tree farms also offer shaking--to rid the tree of blown-in leaves and the occasional bird's nest--and baling to temporarily compact the tree for its ride home atop a car. And although these are "cut your own" businesses, many proprietors will offer help to customers who need it.
Longtime tree farmer Joseph Stevenson of West Hill Tree Farm on Cronk Road, Montour Falls, began growing trees half a century ago. He's now seeing the third generation of some families who have made a tradition of starting their holiday at his farm each year. He decorates the entry to his farm with a wooden sleigh he rebuilt from the runners up in his wood shop; two friendly Santas he also made hold signs explaining pricing. Peek inside beyond the Santas and you'll see an art gallery filled with his work. Like many tree-growers, Stevenson is multi-talented.
So the big decision is, what kind of tree? A tight-needled spruce or a looser-needled pine? A Frazier or a Concolor fir, whose needles offer a citrus aroma? Star at the top or an angel--or both? The most important thing to keep in mind is some advice from O'Neill for people cutting their own trees. It's best to measure because, "They don't look as big in the field as they do in your house."