Each December, red-nosed children with mittened hands tap lightly on Ruth and Chris's door and ask with sweet holiday voices, "Can we get a Christmas tree?" Chris pulls on a scarf and gloves, lends the parents a sled, grabs a hand saw and traipses into the trees as parents pull the little ones behind them through the snow. Over the years, the same customers have come back again and again to this small farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country, making Chris and Ruth's Christmas tree farm part of their holiday memories.
Jolly and rosy-cheeked, Chris has the Santa Claus gene, which makes Christmas tree farming his dream job. "It's great to see the families together, making home movies of each other and the tree. The ritual of cutting down the tree and dragging it out is very dear to many people," said Chris, 67, who has been raising trees for over 30 years.
Anyone with a few acres can plant some seedlings and help them grow into a holiday essential. Each tree sells for upwards of $30 in the country, and two or three times that amount near a city; and a five-acre farm might sell 500 trees in a season. A good source of supplemental income, this form of small business requires yearlong attention, a long-term view, and demanding physical labor.
March is planting season, time to replace more than twice as many trees as were sold the previous year. The hand shovel slices through the thawing ground as the birds work on their nests. "It's deeply satisfying to make positive use of the land, and to be out among the trees and the fresh air," said Chris. It takes anywhere from 7 to 15 years for Christmas trees to grow tall enough to sell.
Beginning in mid-June, afer the trees have their new growth, the most painstaking part of tree farming begins: shearing. At boutique farms such as this one, each tree is sheared by hand, top to bottom, by workers wearing long sleeves, hats, and gloves regardless of the heat. A five-acre farm might have 3,000 trees, and it takes several minutes to shear each one.
Despite the physical demands, shearing gives artistic satisfaction. "You see a reward for your efforts in a matter of minutes, as a scraggly bush becomes a beautiful Christmas tree," said Ruth, 65, a veteran tree shearer.
The top branch of the Christmas tree, where the angel goes, is called the leader. "Getting the leader right is the most crucial part," said Ruth. "If the leader is too long and the tree isn't sold, there will be a big gap next year. If the leader is too short, it doesn't look like a Christmas tree. Sometimes you need to choose one leader among several competitors."
While Ruth shears the trees, Chris mows the grass between the trees once a week and sprays pesticides and fungicides to prevent disease.
Before long, the first families will arrive to choose their trees. Little hands in tiny mittens will once again tap softly on Ruth and Chris's door.