For some, it is a year-round business venture
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Several facets of the pandemic influenced more people than ever to purchase real Christmas trees in 2020. Growers
anticipate another robust year this season for the same reasons.
Taking the family out to cut a tree at a “U-cut” farm is a safe, socially distanced outing.
“Last year, we had no difficulties with distancing and masks,” said Faye Beckwith, owner of Beckwith Christmas Trees in Hannibal.
The 30-acre farm offers plenty of space for customers to spread out and stay separated as they look for a tree to cut or while they select a pre-cut tree.
Beckwith said that the farm opens the Saturday before Thanksgiving and sold out of cut trees early last year. While offerings like refreshments, warming area and wagon rides were nixed last year because of the pandemic, Beckwith hopes the business can offer them again if health guidelines allow them.
Many people still crave something novel to do.
“We have tried to have something new or different every year for our customers,” Beckwith said. “With COVID it’s challenging as you don’t want to have a petting zoo. We did have good success with a memorial tree.”
The farm provides a memory tree at the farm at no cost for customers to adorn with plain balls. They can write something on the ball, such as the name of a loved one or a special memory.
“A lot of people stand around it, thinking of people they’ve lost,” Beckwith said.
The memory tree ties into the increased focus on family and memories spurred by the pandemic. Sharing a traditional experience of selecting a Christmas tree helps people feel nostalgic.
The Christmas tree business is not without its challenges. Some people wonder why a tree should cost so much, for example. Growing Christmas trees for a business is more than planting, waiting 10 years, and then opening the farm for a month.
“The trees need attention from April through December,” Beckwith said. “Neither of us has to spend money on a health club. It’s a daily job for my husband. You start with the planting and it doesn’t take long before you have to mow and shear, mow and shear.”
Shearing refers to trimming the trees so they remain shapely and do not become too tall or gangly.
Tree farmers must also remove the cones of some varieties, since some of the fir varieties grow excessive numbers of cones.
“Fir cones are unlike spruce or pinecones,” Beckwith said. “They disintegrate. If you leave them on, they do this when the customer wants it in their home. That’s problematic. When there are hundreds of cones on one tree, that deforms the tree. You don’t get branches at the top. You won’t have a leader for the star or angel. Firs are not native to our areas, so they’re almost an exotic species.”
The biggest pest issue that the farm experiences is with deer. The animals like to rub on the trees and eat them.
“Those trees may be culled or we may use the branches for wreathes,” Beckwith said. “Nordmann fir are candy to those deer.”
The farm also grows balsam fir, Fraser fir, Colorado blue spruce, Douglas fir, concolor fir, grand fir and Canaan fir. Beckwith and her husband, Jack, perform most of the year-round work and bring onboard help for the busy season. Using a temp agency helps reduce overhead and paperwork for the small farm.
Like any agricultural operation, equipment maintenance and painting the buildings also fills Jack’s hours year-round.
Thomas Hebblethwaite, his wife, Carol, and their son, Gregory, operate a 45-acre tree farm in Pulaski. The elder Hebblethwaite founded the farm in 1971 and they currently grow concolor fir, Frasier Fir, balsam fir, white spruce, black spruce, blue spruce and Scotch pine.
“We’ve been doing it quite a while. It’s enjoyable,” Carol said.
The pandemic has increased the volume of business at the Hebblethwaites’ farm.
“People are more housebound and enjoy getting out,” Thomas said. “It’s one thing where you don’t have to be inside with 20 people. You can go out and enjoy the family and pick out your own tree. Business has been better since the pandemic, but it’s more difficult to run.”
Talking with customers has been tough, for example.
“When it’s zero out and the wind’s blowing and you’re wearing a mask, it’s hard for people to hear,” Thomas said. “You do what you’ve got to do.”
To augment the tree business, Carol learned how to make bows and how to arrange flowers from a florist to improve her wreath-making skills.
Though December is their busiest month, they are pretty busy the rest of the year because growing Christmas trees is not a matter “of just put a tree in the ground,” Thomas said. “It’s a year-round job on a tree farm.”
He performs weed control throughout the summer, so the weeds do not overshadow the saplings. A tidy tree farm also makes for a more inviting shopping environment for customers.
“Every spring, you have to spray your trees with pesticide and fungicide,” he said. “Each fall, you have to trim every tree and form it. The trees take an average of seven to 10 years to grow. You pretty much have all that work for six to 10 years.”
A retiree of Chrysler since 2000, Thomas works on the farm as his only occupation.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how much work goes into a tree farm,” he said. “You’ve got to like doing it because you don’t get rich doing it.”
For the pre-cut trees, workers must harvest them for display on the lot. The farm also allows customers to reserve trees any time of the year, so at Christmastime they can cut the tree themselves or ask a worker to cut it.
“We let people go out in the summer and fall and take a red ribbon and put their name and ribbon and phone number on it,” Thomas said.
Carol and her daughter, Aimee Burns, of Brewerton, also make wreaths on the farm. This helps the family use up boughs from trees too large to harvest as Christmas trees. Some are custom wreaths and others are standard.
“We’ll try to make up 30 to 40 wreaths a night,” Carol said. “Quite a few people want them to make money for some cause. We work with the schools and they do the same thing to make money for the school district.”
The family provides the labor force on the farm among Thomas and Carol’s five children and 14 grandchildren.
For Stan Kolonko and his wife, Lisa, the big challenge at Three B Tree Farm in Jordan is learning the tree business. The Kolonkos purchased the business in October from the Brown family, who has operated the farm since 1990 and recently retired. A professional ice sculptor, Kolonko has plans to move his sculpting business to the farm in a few years. He has renamed it The Ice Farm.
Kolonko financed the purchase through a loan with M&T Bank.
Upon purchasing the farm, he began constructing a 5,000-square-foot building to accommodate his ice sculpting business.
“I’d looked at this property several years ago,” Kolonko said. “My wife loves Christmas, so that fits the bill. I’m trying to supplement my ice company. I’m slow in the summer. With the tree farm, I’ll have more to do for my staff in summer. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
That much he has learned from the Browns. As part of their agreement, he is keeping on the Browns for a year so he can learn all the aspects of making a tree farm successful.
“They have a lot invested and they want it to be successful,” Kolonko said.
He plans to keep the farm like it was— why mess with a winning formula? — with just a few tweaks, such as eventually tucking ice sculptures among the trees so shoppers have a sort of self-guided treasure hunt. He may also hold ice sculpting demonstrations on busy days. He is considering Santa visits, depending upon how the pandemic guidelines go.
Kolonko plans to staff the farm with the Browns’ recommendations and ask if they know of friends and family members interested in a seasonal job. His year-round staff on the farm will number three to four and seasonal staff up to 15.
Kolonko thinks that the location of the farm near Skaneateles and Auburn has helped it succeed, along with its appearance. The tidy rows of trees flank neatly mowed walkways and a couple of ponds grace the property.
Featured Image: Beckwith Christmas Trees in Hannibal.