Local Hero Profile: The Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm
By Jenny Miller Sechler, CISA Volunteer
Published in CISA’s December 2014 E-newsletter (Sign up here!)
Family traditions are an important part of every holiday, and for those who celebrate Christmas, what tradition could be more essential than picking out and decorating the Christmas tree? For Emmet Van Driesche, who owns and operates The Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm along with his wife Cecilia, childhood memories of Christmas trees do not involve walking up and down orderly aisles of conifers in a parking lot or conventionally managed farm. Instead, Emmet’s memories include walks in the winter woods to pick out a natural tree, which he and his family cut and brought home by hand. This is the kind of experience Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm offers to its customers, many of who have been coming to pick and cut their tree at Pieropan’s for three generations. With their focus on continuity, responsibility, and maintaining a business that respects the trees and the land, it is no wonder the Van Driesches find themselves in the role of stewards to so many family traditions.
Emmet describes his and Cecilia’s venture into the Christmas tree business as “a beautiful fit.” He and Cecilia moved to the farm in 2008, and took over the 7 acre “You Cut” grove originally maintained by Al and Mimi Pieropan. Al and Mimi had spent over 50 years managing and selling trees on the land and they were looking for someone to eventually take over the business. “It worked out great for both of us,” says Emmet. “Any farmer struggles with who’s going to take over the farm. It’s a tricky thing to figure out how to keep what you’ve created going.” It worked out great for the families who have been patronizing Pieropan’s too, including customers who have been coming for up to 40 years, at first as children, then with their own children, and now with grandchildren in tow. “Families establish these traditions and you can see it happening as it takes place,” says Emmet, who describes people setting up cookouts by the grove. “We want customers to feel continuity, to evoke the sense of a 50 year tradition. I think about that a lot when I have to make a big decision about the farm.”
Part of what makes Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm such a special place to spend an afternoon in winter has to do with the way trees are grown at the farm. A first time visitor to Pieropan should not expect to see neat rows of trees in a flat field. Instead, walking through Pieropan’s groves feels like walking through a forest of balsam. The trees are grown through a unique form of cultivation called “stump culture.” Christmas trees are not cut at the very base; instead, each tree maintains a mother stump, which sends up new shoots, some of which will become new Christmas trees. Emmet carefully prunes the trees throughout the year to manage the overabundance of branches and encourage the growth of new, distinct Christmas trees. As Emmet is quick to point out, this is a labor-intensive process. However, the benefits of this kind of tree cultivation are manifold. There’s no plowing and seeding a cover crop and no herbicide or pesticides used. This is a particular point of pride for the Van Driesches. “We couldn’t have taken over the Christmas trees if it was conventional,” Emmet remarks. “We are rooted in sustainable agriculture.”
Pieropan’s wreath business is also in full swing at this time of the year, and Emmet spends hours in a brightly lit, sweet smelling shed putting together wreaths to sell to local farms such as Apex Orchards in Shelburne, Mountain View in Easthampton, and Atlas Farm in Deerfield, as well as local businesses such as River Valley Market in Northampton. Emmet and Cecilia also sell handmade wreaths at the grove during the weekends, which they decorate with pinecones from Scotch pines, winterberries they pick in the grove, and velvet ribbons. “Everything is hand tied and done by us as naturally as possible,” Emmet explains. In this way, Pieropan’s wreaths are both beautiful and true to Emmet and Cecilia’s commitment to responsible, sustainable agriculture.
Between making wreaths and helping customers at the grove, Emmet works non-stop at this time of year. The grove is open seven days a week from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Day, from dawn until dusk. One or more of the Van Driesches hang out at the grove to help customers and sell wreaths on the weekends, and Emmet has even been known to go to the grove with a lantern once or twice for far-flung customers who didn’t arrive until long after sunset. Still, there is a definitive end to all this hard work, says Emmet. “Christmas Day, I am done.” Along the way, Emmet and Cecilia are creating their own family traditions, including the tradition of nurturing the original trees Al Pieropan planted over 50 years ago, which they hope to pass on to their two young daughters someday. Like the families who have been picking out their Christmas trees in Pieropan’s groves for generations, Emmet, Cecilia, and their daughters love being in the trees.