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By Jana Seitz

I will never again take a Christmas tree for granted. That pretty thing in the corner upon which you hang ornaments and under which you hide gifts is a huge labor of love. I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for Christmas: a seed is planted, the object grows into a thing of beauty and grace but then is cut down in its prime, a sacrifice for the whole world.

Do you have any idea how much time and effort goes into getting that tree to your home? These trees grow about a foot a year, with an eight-year return on investment. It all begins at a nursery where pinecone seeds are planted and grown for two years before being sold to a tree farm to be grown into your Christmas delight.

Here’s what The Humble Farmer does before planting seedlings in the spring:

  • Strips the soil of the previous crop, removing and burning the stumps;
  • Returns the ash to the soil for nutrients;
  • Breaks up and stirs the soil a foot or more beneath the surface without turning it;
  • Plows so as to cut into the soil lying just beneath the surface;
    • Drags a heavy framed tool by tractor over plowed land to break up clods, remove weeds, and cover seed;
  • Applies lime and fertilizer for PH nutrients;
  • Plants a cover crop (rye, clover, wheat, oats) to hold the soil and stop erosion;
  • Harvests and bails the mature cover crop;
  • Plants the two old seedlings;
  • Waits.

Trees are sprayed four to five times a year with pesticides and fungicides to keep them alive. Herbicides are applied to prevent invasive species. Trees are sheared yearly to control height in proportion to density, giving them a cookie-cutter taper and uniformity. They have no idea they will be Christmas trees. They think they’re timber and it’s a race to the sun. The harvest begins in Year 7. Meanwhile, the Farmer prays that Mother Nature is kind. Cost of healthcare coverage for workers steadily increases; cost of herbicides and pesticides shoots up due to EPA regulations. All of this affects the bottom line.

I’m tired just writing about it. Imagine managing 600 acres (1,400 trees per acre) of 14 different crop years, 24/7. Average mortality is about 15%, but can be as high as 90%.

Now let’s talk harvest. It takes a six-person crew: two cutters with chainsaws, two forkers who lift bottom branches to allow clear view of trunk, and two draggers who cut bottom branches by hand to allow balers to fit around the trunk. Trees are selected by height and grade. Then another six-person bailing crew loads trees on a wagon and takes them to the barn for loading on trucks. All of this is done rain or shine, sleet or snow, as the Christmas show must go on.

And now let’s talk transport. “Transport is a nightmare,” says The Farmer. It’s based on mileage rather than time, so the paycheck is docked by traffic, weather, loading time, and everything else that effects how long it takes an empty truck to fill up with trees and get from Point A to Point B on the highways of America in the busiest trucking season of the year.

I have a whole new respect for truck drivers, having driven a 26-foot flatbed truck 160 miles to load up, with an 18-year-old sidekick driving a second truck behind me. We returned to Rye right at sunset. Terrifying. And exhilarating.

Finally, let’s talk sale. There are many wholesale buyers all over the country who re-sell to individuals. I am fortunate enough to have hands-on experience with one, Christ’s Church in Rye. Three hundred Fraser Firs and Blue Spruce made their way to the church this year where the labor of love continued. Wooden stands must be built, trees unloaded from truck onto said stands, netting removed, prices set by size, boughs and stumps pruned with chainsaws, trees shaken out and shown, then carried to and tied on cars, all by volunteers.

Francis and Nicole Jenkins began the sale at Christ’s Church in 2011, buying and selling 115 trees to raise $7,000 for the church. This year three more families (ours along with the Bommers (Lizzie and Eric) and the Howards (Cynthia and Mark) joined them to buy and sell 300 trees, raising $28,000 in one day, even though the cost of trees was way up. Do you think any of us would ever dare complain about price after learning about the process? It’s hard work, done by highly trained professionals, true experts in their field, and completed by church volunteers.

Artificial trees are made in China with a petroleum-based plastic from the Middle East. Tree farms, per square foot, capture more CO2 and produce more O2 than a natural forest. The residue from previous harvests is returned to the soil. So, next time you think, “Live Christmas trees have gotten so expensive and are such a hassle. Maybe I’ll just buy a fake tree this year,” think again.

Thank you to “The Humble Farmers,” Bryan MacDonald and Bud Koch of Pinecrest Farms in New Ringgold, Pa., for the information and the trees.

 

Loading up 300 trees at Pinecrest Farms.

The author ready to get behind the wheel of a 26-foot flatbed truck and roll!

Newly arrived trees for the annual Christmas sale at Christ’s Church in Rye

 

 


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