One of the oldest stump sprouts Christmas tree farms in the world
The Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 29, 2018.
Alongside a narrow dirt road in Ashfield is the prettiest little Christmas tree farm you’ve ever seen. An evergreen grove covers a steep hillside, and at the bottom sits a shingle-clad shack that’s smartly dressed with a bright red door and a green sign out front: “The Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm. Trees, $30 each.”
Inside, Emmet Van Driesche, 35, the farmer, binds a wreath of freshly cut balsam boughs to a metal frame with thin wire.
“This farm, as far as I’m aware, is the oldest continuously operating example of this method of growing Christmas trees in the world,” Van Driesche says, looking up from his work.
Unlike most tree farms, Van Driesche and his wife Cecilia Van Driesche grow their sustainable balsam Christmas trees from stumps instead of replanting them year after year. Which means that instead of cutting their trees close to the ground, they cut above a few whorls of branches. This technique, also called coppicing, keeps the stump alive to produce more sprouts the next year.
The benefits are many: “There’s no fuel involved with growing. You don’t mow anything. You don’t have to plant seedlings every year. You don’t have to use pesticides because it’s a complex ecosystem. It makes a lot of sense,” he says. “This is how Christmas trees used to be grown across the U.S.”
Each year, Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm sells roughly 500 trees, which are grown on 10 acres. Of those, about 350 are you-cut in the grove and 150 are sold wholesale at stores like Atlas Farm Store in South Deerfield and the Hadley Farm Store.
For much of the year, Van Driesche splits his time between maintaining the farm and running a spoon carving business that he started a few years ago as a way to pass the time when their second daughter was learning how to walk on her own.
“There’s this phase that kids go through where you basically watch them toddle around. Especially if you want them to be independent, you need to let them explore and do their thing,” he says.
“It’s exhausting to do nothing but also be alert to make sure they don’t get hurt. I thought there must be something I could make to sell at the Christmas tree grove during the season, because there’s a season where I have customers, and it’s a captive audience,” he says.
Van Driesche taught himself how to carve by watching YouTube videos and began posting videos on Instagram. Within a few years, what started as a hobby turned into a viable online business, he says.
Soon, he began selling. And that, in turn, “quickly grew into a waiting list, and the waiting list grew longer. At this point I’m booking several months ahead,” he continues.
On the tree farm, his busy season happens between the first few frosts in the middle of October and Thanksgiving when businesses put in orders for wreaths and Christmas trees. Then after Thanksgiving through the middle of December, people start coming to the farm to cut their own trees.
“The needles won’t fall off until February, even though they’ve been harvested now,” he explains. After the season’s first few frosts, the tree goes through a metabolic change and the needles are “fixed” for a few months.
Before building the shack where customers pay — aka the you-cut hut — Van Driesche says he used to stand at table made from saw horses, weathering frigid temperatures and stormy weather. Now, his workplace is cozy and warm.
He pauses from binding boughs to throw one branch away. It’s not the right color, he explains.
“Within balsam there’s a fair amount of variation. It has to do with the individual tree and the nutrients it has access to, how much moisture there is in the ground and what time of year it is. I do a certain amount of being picky when I’m in the field cutting, but you don’t get everything,” Van Driesche says.
He never intended to be a farmer. As a younger man, Van Driesche, who grew up in Westhampton just off Route 66, thought he’d be a sailor. He was introduced to the trade by his two older siblings, and got an apprenticeship on a sailing ship during Tall Ships 2000 in Boston.
“I sailed up the east coast into the St. Lawrence and to the Great Lakes. I was hooked. I was 17. I thought that’s what my life was going to be,” he continues.
During his four years at Bard College, where he majored in writing and ocean studies, Van Driesche set sail during the summers and on winter and spring breaks. He even embarked on a semester at sea offered by Woods Hole in Cape Cod, sailing all the way from Mexico to Hawaii.
“I always thought that I would end up buying a sail boat and sailing around the world and writing about it and supporting myself by selling stories to magazines,” he continues, winding another branch onto the frame. He binds it tightly on, cuts the excess twigs from the back, and hangs the completed Christmas wreath on the wall with a few others.
“But then I met a farmer. That was it. There went all my sailing dreams,” he adds.
At the time, Van Driesche was working on a schooner in Maine and Cecilia Van Driesche, who is originally from Leverett, was working on a farm and studying human ecology at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. They met at a local contra dance while home for Christmas and hit it off immediately.
“We had both dated a lot of people, we knew what we liked, and we were engaged 2 ½ months after meeting. We were very young, and people were very skeptical. But it worked, and we’ve been married for 11 years,” he says. At the time, she was 21, and he turned 22 right after they were engaged.
They moved back to western Massachusetts a short while later and began working together at Side Hill Farm in Shelburne. Unbeknownst to them, the apartment they moved into was owned by Al Pieropan, who started Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm in 1955.
Over decades, Van Driesche says Pieropan, who recently passed away, uprooted balsam sprouts growing along the side of the road on his morning commute and replanted them on his Ashfield farm.
Eventually, Pieropan, who was looking to retire and wanted someone to continue his work, convinced them to take over.
“It was at the height of the recession and there was nothing else going on. We were scraping together jobs and floundering and trying to figure out what we were doing with our lives. We had just had our first daughter,” he says.
That was around 2010. Since then, Van Driesche has become passionate about passing Pieropan’s methods and knowledge on to the next generation.
“I realized early on that this farm is not about me. It’s about (customers). When I’m pruning trees in the heat of summer, it’s for them. When I’m cutting balsam with cold hands, it’s for them. Their ties to the farm, their traditions that in some cases span generations, are the heart of this place. This is their place,” he says.
To that end, next year, he’s slated to put his writing degree to work by publishing a book on stump sprout Christmas tree farming. He believes in his work and feels it’s important to carry forward, he says.
As for Cecilia Van Driesche, he notes that she’s finishing her second bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Massachusetts after getting a degree in math and biology from Smith College.
After finishing another wreath, Van Driesche leads the way behind the shack to a pile of pine clippings. He heaves a load up over one shoulder and heads back inside to make more.