Valley Bounty: Chestnut Mountain Tree Farm
Published November 25, 2023 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Growing Christmas Cheer in the Valley
For many local farmers, cool weather means slowing down. Hardy greens are still growing in covered greenhouses, and plenty of things like meat, cheese, apples and storage crops can be kept and sold until the first warm days of spring, but the frantic pace of summer has finally calmed, sedated by the winter chill.
Except for cut-your-own Christmas tree farmers, that is. Their season just kicked off with a bang.
Like other local cut-your-own farms, Chestnut Mountain Tree Farm in Hatfield does more than just sell trees. Says farmer Bob Schrader, “We’re a place to begin the Christmas season, and we have a number of activities that help make it a full family event.”
Schrader was first drawn to farming as a dairy farmhand in his younger years. After a long career with UMass Extension, “I was looking to get back into farming for retirement, and it got out of control,” he chuckles. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”
When the 150-acre parcel of preserved farmland in Hatfield came up for sale not far from his Northampton home, Schrader jumped on it. “There were already Christmas trees there,” he continues, “so I said, ‘what the heck – let’s do this.’ They were overgrown at the time, but we cleared things up and went from there.”
Today about a third of that land is actively managed. Twenty-five acres are kept as hayfields and another thirty are home to 30,000 hopeful Christmas trees. Only a fraction of these are sold each year, the rest left to ensure income and Christmas cheer are in good supply for the future.
“We have increased our planting significantly in the past few years,” Schrader says, “but it takes about eight years for a tree to grow from the saplings we plant. So as a tree farmer, when you recognize the opportunity to expand, that reality is still eight years away.”
Planting is an early spring activity, as are fertilizing and knocking back weed growth by mowing and occasional spraying. As the weather warms, the evergreens have their annual growth spurt, putting on most of their new height and girth between late May and early July. After that it’s safe to start pruning.
The purpose of pruning is to train a single leader, or dominant stem, (no forked treetops allowed) and to encourage branches to fill out symmetrically, forming the classic Christmas tree shape. This work continues until opening day in late November, when the last-pruned bottom branches become material for handmade wreaths and swag.
As opening day approaches, Schrader also prepares the property for the throngs of visitors that descend during their short selling season. Like many local farms, Chestnut Mountain Tree Farm leans into agritourism, offering an immersive experience on top of their products in an attempt to bring in more money without expanding their farming operation. This is often a shrewd business move, though managing a retail business and public events on top of farming duties can be complex.
Selling Christmas trees, Schrader believes, “you really have to get the retail dollar to make a living. If you sell a tree wholesale, you only get about 60% of what a retail tree goes for and you still have to cut it, bale it, and ship it. This is better economically, and it’s also a fairly nice retail experience. People are very happy at Christmas.”
A visit to Chestnut Mountain Tree Farm is designed to maximize ease and smiles, Schrader says. “When you arrive, you get a tree cart with a saw, and you go out into the field and find your tree. You can cut the tree yourself, or we have helpers who will cut it for you. You bring it back to the sales area and we’ll trim the bottom and any branches you want, shake it out and bale it. You go into the shop to pay for it and buy anything else you like. Come back outside and your tree will be ready to go.”
Free hot chocolate and cookies provide a spark of warmth. Visitors can also purchase tree stands and other accessories, along with handmade decorations and locally crafted gifts. Among them are Chestnut Mountain’s own maple syrup, produced in small quantities each year and sold until it’s gone.
Chestnut Mountain Tree Farm grows three closely related varieties of fir trees: Fraser, Canaan, and Balsam. “Frasers are what people ask for the most,” says Schrader. “They have the strongest branch structure. Canaans have a lot of the same attributes. All the trees have a nice fragrance, but Balsams especially – a very traditional Christmas smell.”
A tree’s ability to hold its needles is more about freshness than variety. Properly watered, any fresh-cut local tree will probably outlast a pre-cut tree shipped from a wholesale farm out of state. Depending on its origin, that tree might have been cut as far back as late October – an unfortunate necessity given the sheer number of trees the largest farms cut and ship each season in North Carolina, Michigan, and other top Christmas tree-producing states.
All large trees at Chestnut Mountain Tree Farm are $75, while smaller tabletop trees up to 3.5 feet are $40. “We also have a lot of what we call Charlie Brown trees,” explains Schrader. “Imperfect trees that we can sell at a considerable discount. Everyone has a different need, and we try to meet those needs.”
Chestnut Mountain Tree farm is open Wednesday-Sunday, 9am to 4pm, now through December 17th. Leashed dogs are welcome, and cash and credit are accepted. Horse-drawn or tractor wagon rides are planned for 10am to 3pm on weekends, weather permitting. Rides are $2 per person and free for children under 5.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about cut-your-own Christmas tree farms and other places to find a locally grown tree, visit buylocalfood.org.