Valley Bounty: Christmas trees

Now that we’ve hit December, local Christmas tree farms are welcoming families in the search for their new living room centerpiece. You might imagine that growing this holiday crop is as simple as throwing a few saplings in the ground and then waiting around. But Bob Schrader, who owns Chestnut Mountain Christmas Tree Farm in Hatfield with his son Jake Schrader, assured me that it’s not quite that simple. “Anyone who thinks with Christmas tree growing you can just plant the tree and then come back seven years later and sell it for $50 is probably going to be very disappointed,” he told me with a laugh.

Each April, Schrader receives a shipment of about 3,000 young trees from a nursery in Michigan. “It’s shipped as bare root stock,” he explained. Even though the trees are already five years old by the time he gets them, they’re still only 12-14’’ tall. Schrader gets the new trees planted as soon as possible. “When you plant a tree, it’s really in shock for the first year,” he said. “It’s been uprooted. All the dirt has been removed from the roots and the roots have probably been pruned up to a third in order to have them fit into the tree planter. Then once they’re in the ground, they’re starting from scratch.”

Schrader’s new trees remain vulnerable throughout their first season on his farm and droughts present a serious threat. During the dry summer of 2016, Schrader lost nearly 20% of his first-year plantings. Chestnut Mountain doesn’t have an established irrigation system but in cases of drought emergency, Schrader has figured out a system for watering his youngest plants. “It involves towing a 1,500-gallon tank, with a few hoses coming off it, down the road,” he said. “It gets really old really quick.” Schrader has only had to haul out the tank three times during his decade on the farm, but this summer’s dry July forced him to water his first-year plantings.

Even though the trees take on only a foot of growth in their first five years, Schrader explained that once they begin to mature on the farm, their rate of growth increases year after year. “They go from, after three or four years in the ground looking like an ugly duckling, to all of a sudden filling out and looking a lot more like a Christmas tree,” he said. From July through September, Schrader carefully guides the growth of those maturing trees. “Each tree is individually sheared to create a leader and to maintain the shape you want,” he explained. It’s no accident that every Christmas tree has a perfect tip top to hang a favorite ornament. “If you left it to the tree, by the time it’s been in the ground for three or four years, you might have a half dozen leaders,” Schrader said. “And they compete with each other, so you would end up with a tree top that looked more like a bush than a Christmas tree.”

By this time of year, the pruning is finished and Christmas tree farmers across the Valley are ready to welcome the community to cut their own locally grown trees. But not all trees have the same qualities. Schrader explained that the Fraser Fir is the most popular variety on his farm. Frasers hold their needles the longest of any of the trees he grows (about six weeks) and have strong branches to hold up heavy ornaments. The Balsam Fir has weaker branches, but its needles are softer and it has a heavy fragrance of what Schrader calls that “Christmas smell.” For the adventurous, Concolor Firs have long, spiky needles and give off a citrus scent.

Schrader explained that by the time they’re ready for a family to take them home, most of the trees on his farm are between 12 and 14 years old. So as you’re enjoying your hot apple cider and hay ride at the Christmas tree farm this year, spare a thought for the local farmer who helped raise that teenage tree you’re welcoming into your home!

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)