Ed Myslowski Jr. hand-shears all of the trees he grows to ensure a fully branched tree.
Before the age of instant information,farmers looked forward to receiving an annual book from their congressman that held the secrets to good farming practices. Each year, this book, known as the Yearbook of Agriculture, focused on a theme. Topics ranged from soils and seeds to pest control and cultivation of various crops. One year, Ed and Helen Myslowski received the yearbook with the theme "trees," which included a chapter on growing Christmas trees. The book instructed farmers to plant evergreens and sell them at Christmastime for $1.
Ed thought that growing Christmas trees seemed like a good idea, so he hand-planted thousands of trees. However, he wasn't prepared for the insects and diseases that appeared as the trees grew. With the help of a local forester, Ed and Helen became quite good at diagnosing and controlling insects and diseases in the trees, and they also learned how to shear. In the early 1960s, the couple sold their first trees from a rented lot in Mountaintop, Pa. Conditions at the lot were less than ideal, so Helen suggested that they advertise as Helen and Ed's Tree Farm (www.helenandedstreefarm.com) and invited customers to come and choose and cut their own trees at the farm. That venture was a success the first year, and was the beginning of a business that their son, Ed Jr., expanded.
"Dad started selling trees here in 1961," said Ed Jr. "Most of the business has been word-of-mouth. There are people who are coming here who are older than I am; they were coming here when they were kids."
Myslowski learned a lot about the tree business as he grew up on the farm. He studied environmental resource management at Penn State University and also became a certified arborist, which he said gives the business more credibility and provides a deeper knowledge base for growing trees. "You'd think there would be a finite number of insects and diseases, and I should know them all by now." he said. "But new problems are always a challenge; I know a couple of growers who are now having trouble with scale."
Since taking over the operation of the farm in 1996, Myslowski has expanded all aspects of the business, including the addition of a landscaping segment to fill in the seasonal gap. He grows a variety of deciduous trees including maple, birch, dogwood, oak, willow and ornamental specimens. He also does residential consulting work, which keeps him busy throughout the year. And, while Christmas tree growers are busy scouting and spraying in spring, Myslowski is doing that - and more. He digs trees and loads tractor trailers with balled and burlaped trees (evergreen and deciduous) for customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Three-year-old seedlings are ready to leave the seedbed and finish growing in the field.
"Spring is a busy time of year," he said. "We spray preemergent on all of the new fields, dig trees, scout and plant trees." Myslowski notes that the popular Douglas fir is a particularly tricky species to grow. "Douglas fir requires high and dry growing conditions," he said. "They need air movement for the needlecast diseases, and they don't like it wet. They bud early, so if they're in a low spot where the cold air puddles, they'll get frosted very easily." Getting Douglas fir established isn't the only problem. "We have to watch for Rhabdocline and Swiss needle cast on Douglas fir," he said, adding that gall midge is also an increasing problem. "You can't really grow Douglas fir without spraying. We put [on] at least two applications."
Rather than purchasing young conifers to finish for the Christmas tree market, Myslowski starts trees from seed. In addition to favorites such as Fraser, Canaan, Concolor, Douglas, Norway spruce and Colorado blue spruce, he grows more unusual conifers including Nordmann fir, Veitch fir, Korean fir, Nikko fir, grand fir and Serbian spruce. Young trees thrive in shade cloth-covered seedbeds in an area that's protected from severe weather and animal damage. Before young trees are set out to mature, fields are limed, fertilized, chisel plowed and sometimes fumigated prior to planting. After that, it's a matter of scouting, spraying and shearing.
Myslowski insists on hand-shearing all of his trees, noting that it's a tough job, but the results are worth the effort. "There's an art to shearing trees properly," he said. "My motto is to keep the trees narrow when they're young, and they'll fill out. If you start wide, you'll be in trouble when the tree gets bigger. A lot of people don't have room in their house for a large tree." His sons, Dylan, who is 17, and Jeremy, age 16, are starting to work with the trees. "They do all the mowing, and this year they're starting to shear trees," he said.
After all of the work it takes to start seedlings and keep trees healthy and sheared, Myslowski has to deal with another issue: deer. The farm is located in a mountainous region of Pennsylvania with a high deer population. "They'll eat hemlock, Fraser fir, Canaan fir and Serbian spruce," he said. "I've tried everything - fencing, spraying, everything." He said that deer control is especially difficult because they come around in large herds. "One day I was cross-country skiing through some perfect emerald green arborvitae and thought about how great those trees looked," he recalled. "I came back three days later and it was nothing but hoof prints; they ate all 300 trees right back to the stem. I had to do something, so now I feed them in the winter."
Although feeding deer might not sound like the best way to solve the problem, it works well for him. "I know a couple of potato farmers who harvest potatoes and store them in huge bins," he explained. "During the winter, they run the potatoes through a separator and sell them to a potato chip maker. All of the bad potatoes are kicked out, so I take my dump truck and fill it up with those potatoes. I take them to three feeding stations - the deer love them. They use their hooves to chip out the frozen potatoes, eat them then they go back to the woods."
During the season, many customers like to select a Christmas tree from the farm's 50 acres of choose-and-cut trees. "We give them a map that has prices on one side and a map on the other," said Myslowski. "We have about 150 hand saws, so we take a deposit and provide a saw. If somebody needs help bringing a tree back, we can help them." A selection of freshly cut trees is available to those who prefer not to cut their own. "We have two wagons attached to the tractor," said Myslowski. We take them out to the field, cut trees, load them on the wagons and bring them back. We like to make sure we cut to keep the supply fresh."
On busy weekends prior to Christmas, he relies on help from a crew of young people who help park cars, carry trees in from the field and prepare trees for customers. "We have a netting baler and expandable cone twine baler," said Myslowski. "We also have a shaker and a drilling machine."
For those who live in the city, a trip to Helen and Ed's is somewhat like disappearing into the wilderness. However, customers can find the farm easily by following a series of well-placed signs from the main roads to the farm. Customers enjoy the rural atmosphere and can purchase extras such as tree stands and fresh, handmade wreaths created by his wife Beth.
"We do everything by hand," Myslowski said. "I think our trees are pretty nice."
The author is a new contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.