A few years back, we had some family friends over for a cookout. One of them looked up at the long, straight rows of Christmas trees growing on our hillside in the distance. “It looks just like a vineyard,” he said admiringly. I had to chuckle because if those were indeed grapes, the glass of wine I had just poured him would probably have been much higher quality.
While far from the glamorous perfection of Napa Valley, I had to concede there was a certain country elegance to the field of trees. At that point, they had been sheared for the year and I had just brushhogged between the rows, so everything looked pretty manicured and put together.
Maybe it’s this postcard image that tempts so many people to want to get into Christmas tree farming. For a few large growers, it’s an honest occupation; for others, like me, it’s a rewarding sideline. The reality for all of us in this business, though, is that there are few chances to just stand and admire the trees. Working in those rows can feel like trench warfare: a battle against heat, frost, disease, insects, weeds, drought, wet soils, and occasionally (I say this with some recent experience) ground hornets. And that’s just the growing end of the business; there’s also the all important marketing and sales work that some tend to overlook when contemplating the start of a Christmas tree farm.
There are many reasons to get into Christmas tree farming – the chance to get outside, the satisfaction of keeping agricultural land productive, and the possibility of a small income stream eventually, perhaps chief among them – but, like most things in life, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Though I’d be reluctant to call growing Christmas trees “farming” in front of a dairy farmer who rises at 4 a.m. to milk his cows, there’s plenty of work involved.
“People tend to think they can just stick some trees in the ground and they will miraculously pay for their property taxes,” observed Nigel Manley, manager of The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, New Hampshire., which is an education center for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, as well as a working Christmas tree farm with more than 45,000 trees in the field.
Manley said that when he gets inquiries from people “looking for a crop where they haven’t got to do anything,” or “hoping to make a quick buck by planting Christmas trees,” he tries to provide a bit of a reality check. “Many are horrified to learn that they’ll have to be out planting trees in the cold in April and shearing them in the heat of summer, and that they may have to spray for bugs and apply weed control.” Most prospective growers don’t realize that, even starting with a five-year-old seedling, it takes about 8 to 10 years to produce a Christmas tree. That’s 10 years of work and worry before you get paid. (And that’s if everything goes right.)
I went into Christmas tree farming with my eyes wide open, having grown up the son of a Vermont county forester who also grew Christmas trees. I planted my first trees in elementary school. My summers during junior high and high school were spent shearing Christmas trees on larger farms nearby. So, years later, when my wife, Tami, and I purchased a 60-acre property that was mostly wooded but included an eight-acre field, I knew what I wanted to do with it.
Even so, there was a learning curve. Over the course of 10 years we planted 8,000 trees, and we now plant and sell about 500 trees per year. We’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but none that we couldn’t recover from. I’m sure we would have made more if we hadn’t been able to learn from others.
Fortunately, every state in the Northeast has an association of Christmas tree growers, and I’ve found fellow farmers almost universally willing to share their expertise. The modest annual dues and meeting fees are an investment that can save thousands of dollars in mistakes. “Everything that I learned came from going to other people’s farms and joining the New Hampshire-Vermont Christmas Tree Association,” said Manley.
For those who already own open land, or who are considering such a purchase, there are a few basic factors to consider before planting Christmas trees. The first is that trees simply will not grow well on wet sites. There are some species and varieties touted by nurseries to “tolerate” wetter conditions, but the reality is that every tree does best on well-drained soils. If you have ground that’s wet for long stretches of the year, consider the cost of installing drainage before planting or look for other land. Soil pH is another factor that should be considered. As a general rule, balsam and Fraser fir do best in a pH range of 5.0 to 6.0.
If you’ve got a good site and are ready to take the plunge, the next hurdle is planning the layout of the field: For better or worse, you’ll be stuck with your decision for years, maybe decades, to come. I’ve seen many farms where tree spacing (the distance between rows and between the trees in the rows) was clearly done with an eye toward growing as many trees as possible. That’s an understandable but shortsighted approach.
Spacing trees at 5-by-5 feet will allow for more than 1,700 trees per acre, while 6-by-6 spacing yields about 1,200. It’s hard to imagine when the young transplants are first put in the ground, but even 6-by-6 spacing will be pretty tight by the time the trees are fully grown. As a general rule, allowing a little extra space may result in fewer trees to sell, but it will make it easier to work in the trees, mow between the rows, and provide for more air circulation, which can reduce disease pressure.
Once a layout is settled upon, tree species must be determined. When I sheared trees in high school in the 1980s, Scotch pine, white pine, and Douglas fir were commonly planted varieties. Those are mostly gone now in this part of the country, replaced in large part by balsam and Fraser fir. Some farms are experimenting with “exotics” like Korean fir, Turkish fir, Meyers spruce, and the like, with the hope that they not only offer options to buyers, but also some resistance to pests and diseases that are affecting other species on their farms.
One trait many growers look for is late-breaking buds. Any new growth that’s emerged from the bud can be quickly killed by a hard frost, stunting that year’s growth. When a crop takes up to 10 years to mature, lost growing seasons are hard to take. Most years, trees such as Fraser and Canaan fir (a variety of balsam) will break bud after the danger of frost has passed.
Of course, some of these start-up decisions and dilemmas can be bypassed by purchasing an existing Christmas tree farm. It’s not uncommon to see established tree farms come on the real estate market, and this may offer an easier route into the business than starting a farm from scratch. In Sanbornton, New Hampshire, the Fox family recently purchased a thriving Christmas tree farm with 3,000-plus trees as part of a lifestyle change when they moved from California. “We really just wanted to buy a farm. The fact that it was a Christmas tree farm sounded a little more fun than farming, say, wheat,” said Denise Fox, who does much of the work on the farm, while her husband Nick works a fulltime marketing job (unrelated to the farm).
She said she’s been fortunate to have ongoing guidance from the farm’s previous owner. “It would be very difficult to jump into an existing Christmas tree farm without training,” said Fox.
While the long rotation period for Christmas trees might seem to take some pressure off, there’s little time to be wasted during the decade it takes to grow a Christmas tree. Nigel Manley said he regularly gets calls from people who planted Christmas trees a few years earlier and suddenly wondered what’s next. “I usually hear from them when the trees have gotten to be about four feet tall, and they think it’s probably time to start shearing them,” he said, with a chuckle.
The truth is that even newly planted trees require some attention. At the very least, it’s important to cut out double tops: leave a double top for four years and you’ll have two complete trees, neither of which will be salable.
“You mean you have to shear every tree every year?” is a question I hear over and over from my tree customers. The answer is yes. The work is done by hand (I use a 16-inch shearing knife) and it takes me pretty much all summer and into the early fall on our farm. I’ve found shearing to be the most time-consuming, but also most rewarding aspect of growing Christmas trees. Transforming the wild new growth into a cone shape provides instant gratification.
In Warwick, New York, Kurt Emmerich has been planting Christmas trees since 2005 and is just getting ready to open for selling this year. He, too, has been struck by the amount of work it takes to maintain trees. “I had planted thousands of trees in the past with a hoe dag in Oregon, so the planting was the least of my problems. But I had never dealt with the mowing and the shearing and the equipment and everything that goes into maintaining the trees. Getting all of that figured out has been a lot of work,” said Emmerich. The biggest challenge? “Weeds.”
He’s not alone in that sentiment. Over the years, I’ve developed what can only be described as an adversarial relationship with field bindweed, bedstraw, vetch, and goldenrod. It’s not a matter of aesthetics. The species grown as Christmas trees generally don’t regenerate naturally in open fields, and are at a disadvantage when it comes to competing with grass and weeds for sunlight, water, and nutrients. It’s essential to limit this competition, especially when the trees are younger/small.
Emmerich said he now has his weeds under control, but his next challenge is bugs. “At first the pressure isn’t too bad, but once the trees start to have some economic value, the bugs decide it’s time to move in and destroy them,” he said with a halting laugh.
Those are the challenges that make me wonder if I should have invested in the stock market instead. Despite the uncertain performance of mutual funds in recent years, there’s no threat of them being infested by the gall midge or balsam twig aphid.
Money Doesn’t Grow On Trees
When considering the cost of running a Christmas tree farm, be liberal with your projections. Figure out what you think you’ll spend, then double it. “The amount of equipment you need to purchase is pretty insane,” said Fox after just a couple years in the business. “You need an auger. You need a tractor. You need a bucket and a plow and a trailer and, it seems, you need the most expensive chainsaw that money can buy. And that’s just the stuff we had to buy. The farm already came with bow saws and netters. Netters work by pulling trees through a cone-shaped funnel, temporarily flattening branches against the trunk, then wrapping trees in nets to make them easier for customers to handle and transport.
Between equipment, supplies, and planting stock, Kurt Emmerich figures he’s spent tens of thousands of dollars getting his tree farm established – and that’s not counting the initial costs of the land, property taxes, and insurance. “But I don’t mind putting the money into it because it is an investment and I have something to show for it,” he said.
I’ve found that some expenses are minor and incurred over the years, without inflicting too much financial pain. Some, though, sting a little more. I vividly recall taking delivery of a used Kubota the week before our son was born, the wrong time, it turns out, to tell your spouse that you bought a tractor. (In my defense, the tractor is still with us and Aidan is now nearly old enough to drive it.)
Of all the money invested in our Christmas tree farm, Tami is convinced that the best is the $90 we hand over each year to rent a Porta-Potty during our sales season. It’s fine to have hundreds of people at our house, she says, but not in our house.
It’s a stereotype, but I think it’s true: farmers are often very good at growing things, but they have a much harder time when it comes to selling things. The problem is often compounded by poor decision-making years earlier. I’ve heard many stories of people getting started in Christmas tree farming by planting 5,000 or 6,000 trees their first year. I wonder if any such undertaking has ever been successful.
When learning the ropes, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to make mistakes on 100, or even 500, trees than it is on 5,000. Besides, selling Christmas trees depends on repeat business, so it makes no sense to put in a huge one-time planting without continuing year after year. And even if a new farmer were diligent and lucky enough to get such a massive initial planting to maturity, the challenge of selling that many trees without an established name would likely prove impossible. There are very few choose-and-cut farms in the Northeast selling thousands of trees each year, and the wholesale market might be even more difficult for a new farm to break into.
Planting fewer trees initially makes it easier to ease into sales once the trees mature. In fact, Nigel Manley recommends that new growers begin marketing and selling almost from the beginning. “I tell people who have four-foot trees to start buying in trees [from other growers] and selling those. Get your signage up, start talking about your farm, get a mention in the local paper,” he stresses. “That way you’ll be known by the time your own trees are ready.”
Drive around the Northeast and you’ll see plenty of former Christmas tree farms that now are forests. These are often testaments to over-eager planting or poor sales planning, or both. Whether it’s Christmas trees or widgets, you need to have a plan for marketing and selling your product.
When you do get people to your farm, you’ll find that Christmas tree customers are a curious and unpredictable bunch. Despite your best efforts to put up signage, posts, and cones, they will drive where you don’t want them to and do things you never imagined they could do. Last year, I had a fellow who insisted on tying his tree to the roof of his SUV with the top pointing forward. Having seen plenty of umbrellas turn inside out in the wind, I politely suggested that, given the direction the branches naturally grow, it would probably be better to flip the tree in the other direction. “Nope. It’s more aerodynamic this way,” he counseled me. “And I’ve got a long way to go.” I thanked him for his business and walked away wondering how many needles (or branches) would be left on the tree when he reached his destination.
But selling Christmas trees is almost always a feel-good experience and it’s rewarding to be a part of that. Nobody is unhappy when they come to get a tree. Unlike shopping for life insurance or a car battery, Christmas trees are a purchase that people are excited about. Fox marveled at the loyalty she’s already experienced from local residents. “When people found out we had bought the farm and were going to keep the Christmas tree sales going, they were so grateful. They were thanking us profusely.”
It’s true. I can’t count the number of customers who approach me throughout the year to tell me they can’t wait to come again to buy a tree. For many, going out to cut a Christmas tree is a family tradition, and now our farm is part of it.
Patrick White, along with his wife, Tamara, and son, Aidan, operate Meadow Ridge Farm in Middlesex, Vermont. Working in the Christmas trees gives him the chance to take a break from his “real” job as a writer/editor and get outside.