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Evergreen Thumbs: Local Christmas-tree farm owners talk business

December 2, 2012
By AMANDA MAY METZGER , The Leader Herald

As the English version of the German folk tune turned Christmas carol is sung: "O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, your branches green delight us! They are green when summer days are bright. They are green when winter snow is white."

But how did those branches come to be such perfect perches for tiny ornaments and sturdy enough for strung lights?

Chances are, if the live tree was bought locally, a farmer spent eight to 10 years caring for what becomes the indoor Christmas centerpiece.

Article Photos

ared Goderie takes two Christmas trees to a trailer for delivery at Goderie’s Tree Farm in the town of Johnstown on Wednesday. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan)

Patience is a key characteristic for Christmas-tree farmers as a return on the initial investment doesn't sprout for eight to 10 years as the first crop grows to maturity, said Pete Goderie who co-owns Goderie's Tree Farm in the town of Johnstown with his brother Mike.

For a successful crop, farmers must have scientific savvy as they measure soil pH levels and gauge the best time to plant based on the weather forecast.

Many local tree farms are multi-generation businesses, and that's part of the magic, growers say.

Fact Box

10 TREE CARE TIPS

The following is a list of tips for caring for a live Christmas tree from the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York website, www.christmastreesny.org:

1. Keep tree in a cool, shady place like the garage until ready to bring indoors.

2. Saw 1/4 inch off bottom of trunk prior to placing the tree in stand.

3. Make a cut perpendicular to the axis of the stem, not at angles or a v-shaped cut.

4. Make sure to place tree in water-holding stand immediately after making cut.

5. Stand must be able to hold enough water for the size of the tree.

6. Use warm water for the first fill of the stand.

7. Maintain an adequate water level always. Check water level every day.

8. Check water levels twice per day in the first few days. A tree will absorb the most water after it is recently cut and placed in water.

9. Make sure tree is displayed away from heat sources. Always check electrical devices like lights and other decorations before placing on the tree.

10. Avoid spraying preservatives or fire retardants on tree. Some of these products actually increase moisture loss. The most fire-retardant tree is one that is properly watered.

"It's nice because it's a family thing. We all trim the trees, plant the trees - with the kids and everything, it's been nice," said Thomas Herba of Herba's Acres Tree Farm.

Herba's grandparents bought the 140-acre farm, at 607 County Highway 106, Johnstown, in 1921. But it wasn't until 1983 that Herba decided to transform the dairy farm into rows of evergreens.

Goderie's Tree Farm, 338 County Highway 106, Johnstown, has a similar story. It was established in 1970 and spans about 250 acres, though 180 acres are "in production" now, Goderie said.

Goderie said his father planted the first trees as a way to pay for the brothers' college education, though they couldn't sell until well after they graduated.

The brothers have been managing the farm since 1983. They are the fourth generation to operate the farm, which doubled in size in 2002 when they bought land across the street from the main building. At that point they began working there full time - sometimes seven days a week between the two of them. They employ three people full time and often hire seasonal help when it's time to shape the trees in the late summer.

In Lassellsville, Robert and Nancy Quackenbush operate Quackenbush's Trees and Wreaths, 479 County Highway 119, St. Johnsville.

Entirely a family operation, the couple only grow balsam fir trees, sell custom-made greens and operate a gift shop.

"It started in the garage," Robert said. "Then we had this [shop building] built as a place to work in 1997."

Now the cozy structure doubles as a workspace for Nancy's hand-made greens and a fully-stocked gift shop featuring unique items the couple finds at trade shows.

"I like relating with the customers and having people walk away pleased. We started this because we wanted to offer a quality product for a decent price, and we've stayed with that," Robert said.

The science

December is when the evergreen is fresh in everyone's mind, but it's a year-round job for tree farmers.

Tree farmers said about 1,000 trees are planted per acre. In the spring, seedlings come from several nurseries from areas that have similar climates such as Maine and Pennsylvania.

When the trees arrive at local farms, they're about 18-inches tall and four or five years old.

At Goderie's the spring is spent planting 5,000 to 10,000 trees.

Using equipment and three to four employees, Goderie's can plant about 500 trees an hour, Pete Goderie said.

Goderie said the trees must be planted at the perfect time in the spring, often late March, so the buds are safe from late frosts.

The soil conditions must be right. That means paying attention to the weather forecast and trying to plant when the soil is a little dry, but there's rain in the forecast.

"If it's too wet, it slows us down," Goderie said.

Late frosts - take last spring for example - can be damaging to the trees' growth as the frost kills the new buds on the branches. The late frost last spring destroyed about half the state's apple crop. For the evergreen trees, it affected the young or freshly planted trees, but won't have any impact on this year's selection.

"Seedlings and transplants are vulnerable to conditions," Goderie said.

The trees require constant fertilization. Goderies works the soil over and checks its pH balance, hoping for a 5 1/2 to 6 range.

The trees then are sprayed for fungus and damaging insects like mites and aphids.

"The timing on that is really critical," he said.

Mowing in-between the trees also is important. Once the trees are three to four feet tall, each is sheared to help it grow in the perfect Christmas tree shape.

Different trees also require different types of soil.

"If you don't get them one the right soil, they'll struggle," Goderie said.

Goderies grows balsam fir, fraser fir, Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce, white spruce and a few concolor fir.

When they first started growing, they had only Scots pine and white spruce, then Douglas firs.

Recently the fraser fir has become the most popular because it retains its needles, which are soft and less likely to harm pets or young children. They are native to North Carolina.

"They used to say if it weren't for the Christmas tree, there'd be no use for them," Goderie said.

Herba's Acres Tree Farm grows Douglas, balsam and frasier fir trees. They come from nurseries, usually in Maine or Eerie, Pa., and are about four years old when they are planted at Herba's.

"I try to buy my seedlings from an area that has the same climate as we do," said Thomas Herba, who owns the farm with his wife Patty.

After they're planted, the Herbas weed and mow the grass around them to keep them in a clear area.

It's a perpetual cycle of keeping the area around them clear from weeds and brush.

They also must be protected against insects and fungus throughout the year.

When they reach hip height, Herba said his family begins to shear them to shape them into the perfect Christmas tree outline.

The Herbas maintain 20 acres. When they plant, about 900 trees go into the ground, but that number varies.

The Quackenbushes have about 10 acres of trees. They don't spray for pests or buy from nurseries. Instead, all of their trees are home grown from the start.

"The balsam fir grows naturally in the area. It's pretty much its natural habitat. The soil here is made nice for them," Quackenbush said.

They don't budget for chemicals since they have rarely used them, he said.

Planting starts in April. In June and July, Quackenbush mows and in August he begins shaping the trees for seven weeks. Then in about 10 years the trees are ready to be freshly cut and brought to the gift shop for sale.

Diversification

They might be known for their Christmas trees, but many farmers offer much more.

Most farmers make wreaths, kissing balls and door swags. Nancy Quackenbush also makes mailbox huggies - greens that decorate the mailbox - greens shaped like candy canes, crosses, arches, as well as centerpieces and tabletop trees.

Wreaths range from one foot to four feet and all sizes in between.

The Quackenbushes grew their gift shop over the years offering holiday ornaments to suit all sorts of interests.

They attend a couple craft fairs as well

"People who are actually growers are usually diversified," Robert said. "Some grow berries and some do landscaping."

Bob's Trees in Hagaman - spanning more than 100 acres - started in 1947 and has grown to include a Christmas shop with Santa Claus, live reindeer, cross country skiing, horse-drawn wagon rides and a snack bar on weekends, according to www.bobstrees.com.

Goderie's also specializes in installing trees for residential and commercial landscaping. They grow trees for landscaping, seed lawns, building retaining walls and work on existing plantings and wooded sites, according to its website, www.goderiestreefarm.com.

That's not to mention the handmade wreaths usually being fashioned inside the shop this time of year.

"When you get into the wreaths, you're using material that would otherwise go to waste," he said.

November is the busiest months with for wreath making, By the end of the December, "it's nice to sit back and enjoy the holiday," Goderie said.

"The trees are the real draw," Goderie said. About 60 to 70 percent of the business is trees, but the kissing balls, wreaths, swags and other greens are very popular.

They also operate BTF Wholesale and distribute many items like netting and balers

From the start the Herbas made greens like wreaths and kissing balls.

"We've been doing it right along as we've been selling the trees. Otherwise they would have been disposed of. It helps keep the price of the trees down a little bit," Herba said.

Friends more

than competitors

It's fitting the folks who sell good cheer seem to be full of it all year around. Each Christmas tree farmer said they view their contemporaries more as friends than competitors.

Nancy Quackenbush highlighted the benefit of attending events sponsored by the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York where she learns how to create the latest trends in holiday decor.

This year she started making deco mesh wreaths, a new item, and Bob said he learned how to get the tops of his trees just right from members of the association.

Farmers pay annual dues to belong to the association.

"We all get along fairly well. We share each others' problems and what we've done to help alleviate the problems. The majority of people I know who grow trees belong to the association," Herba said.

Goderie is the new president of the about 425-member association.

Goderie's will be one of about two dozen tree farms in the state to take part in a study through the association to see how the Turkish Fir tree, which grows in wet heavier soils and is native to Turkey, could grow in this state.

Many of the farmers also donate trees and wreaths to local charities.

 
 

 

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