The Busy Life of a Christmas Tree Farm Owner

christmas-trees

For Northeast tree growers, the holiday season starts now!

It just smells like Christmas on a Christmas tree farm – no matter what time of year. No matter what season, these specialized woodlot farms are busy. In fact, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if it wasn’t Christmas in July, and just about every other month.

But there are definite public perceptions to battle, such as comments about how wealthy tree growers must be if all they do is plant a tree, then “go fishing the rest of the year,” said Roger Unangst, who works 90 to 105 hours per week year-round, although that total declines during the sale season at Unangst Tree Farms in Bath, Pennyslvania.

A day in the life

On an early spring visit, Unangst returned from pulling soil samples at a rented 5-acre farm 4 miles away that was still in soybean, so there’s a lot of work there. It’s the newest acquisition of land that augments the 113-acre home farm that’s been in the family since the 19th century and another rented 32 acres in Kresgeville, 27 miles away.

About eight years ago, the family couldn’t keep up with demand, and since filling in with wholesale-bought trees, the problem was solved by taking over farms that are already in production. He remains open to questions, but hears the commentary: The public sees the Christmas-time intake, but not the year-round output in manpower and money. Fertilizer alone costs between $22,000 and $28,000 a year, he said, so you can’t sell a $3 transplant for $8 or $12 after seven years of labor and taxes. “It all becomes clear when you have a chat with someone,” Unangst said.

It’s a year-round, full-time job. July may be the offseason for the consumer, but not for growers. July is when Christmas tree growers get going.

‘Tis the summer

On July 1 at Unangst Tree Farms, crews start shearing all of the firs, and on the way back catch the spruces and Douglas Firs, shaping 2,500 trees an hour, shearing a 3-foot tree with a shearing knife, making sure it’s wider at the bottom and straightening all leaders. “But you don’t want it to look like a Christmas tree yet,” Roger said.

At 4 feet, he shears with a Saje’s backpack with a mounted motor. At 8 feet, a shearer wands around to shape the body into a Christmas tree.

The next generation: from L-R Joe, Kelli, John and his son, John, and daughter, Sydney, and Jeff Yeager.

A typical individual shearer will maintain 5,000 trees a day before heat fatigue takes a toll on quality. “They’re all trained to watch over each other,” Unangst said. “If another worker sees Billy suffering, then they give him a break. We need trees of quality. We like to finish shearing trees by noon, then there are other tasks. Can you shear for eight hours a day? Can it be done? Yes. But for quality, no.”

Yeager’s Christmas Tree Farm, with its two locations in Phoenixville-Kimberton, Pennsylvania, receives the same buzz of activity in mid-summer, even into August and September. Jeff Yeager, whose official farm title is “youngest son,” has seen his father, John, shear a tree in December if an early-bird customer is coming. “It’s a farm, and things are always happening,” he said.

A diversified farm, the Yeagers’ trees are its leading source of income. Jeff and his brothers, John and Joe, are seventh-generation farmers. Of Jeff’s brothers, Joe will carry on full-time, “but we’ll all continue to help.”

Yeager’s Christmas Tree Farm was a dairy farm into the late 1980s until profit margins made it unprofitable, so John Yeager, the boys’ grandfather, began researching and investing in Christmas trees, at first selling pre-cut trees in 1990. By the late ’90s, the family built its all-purpose market building.

Last year, the first tree sale was in the first week of November, but that’s unusual. Officially, the farm opens to sell trees on Black Friday, but unofficially on the first day of November.

Fraser fir with irrigation.

At Yeager’s, trees are hand sheared and shears are run off battery packs. Each tree gets a few minutes of attention – enough to continue giving it a triangular shape to its leader. Buds are removed so that one strong leader dominates, but crews do not shear early in the day because the summer dew combined with heat could breed disease. “It would be comfortable in the morning, but it’s not prudent,” Jeff said.

A fleet of people shear, even his 82-year-old grandfather, dividing up four fields (the largest of 15 acres). The trees sheared last are the ones most likely to be sold the coming year. “What’s most important is that the young trees heed to the training,” Jeff said.

A year-round view

After two weeks of vacation in January for the Unangst family, operations resume with maintaining equipment, like tree bailers, inside work sheds. It’s the same at Yeager’s, where after Christmas stumps are also cut flush to the ground and left to decompose.

There are 130,000 Christmas trees from Michigan that are planted during late March. They are planted on a rotational basis at the main farm, where the newest section has returned to the front of the property.

Aerial view of Unangst Tree Farms.

“By the time trees arrive, we’ll have first pulled soil samples, limed and laid magnesium, plowed, chiseled and disced,” said Unangst, who for the last four years has largely been without his son Kody, who has now graduated from Penn State University with an agricultural degree.

The 8,000 transplants arrived the day of this visit at Yeager’s, where there are some 45,000 trees planted within a 120 acre-property that’s been in the family since William Penn’s days. The 3-year-old seedlings or saplings were ready to plant in available areas throughout the farm’s fields with a machine that looks like a wheelbarrow with an auger at the front. It drills the hole, but each tree is planted by hand.

It takes a month or more to plant, sometimes even into mid-May depending on an early or late start. There’s just one wheelbarrow with the auger. “It’s back-breaking,” Jeff said. “It’s all hands on deck in planting and selling season.”

The Unangsts like to alternate pumpkins the first year after Christmas trees have been harvested, then plant a corn maze a year after that, before re-planting trees. The two-year break helps restore phosphorus to the soil, a necessity for the trees, but not one that pumpkins draw on. The corn maze keeps weeds down for the next soil preparation for trees. “It just lets things settle,” Roger said. “A lot of Christmas tree farms try to fix the soil with additives. Our system just works for us, and it fits in with our pumpkin program, too.”

The first year Unangst plants trees, the objective is to allow the root system to develop. The spacing is 6 feet between rows, and 5 feet from row to row. In 1,000 feet of trees (always 6 feet by 5 feet), there are 14-row sections, then a roadway for access. Between trees, Roger plants hard fescue grass, an aggressive, thick grass that chokes out weeds, but requires mowing three or four times a year, definitely once before shearing in July and before customers begin coming through. The grass also helps keep soil temperatures down.

Typically, it takes seven years to have a saleable tree, which grows about 2 inches the first year, then a foot a year after shaping. In terms of the popularity in size and species, that’s a seven-year game of speculation. Eight to nine years ago, 90 percent of the trees sold at Unangst were Douglas Fir. Now, Douglas Fir doesn’t make up half the demand. Fraser is trending, a less allergic tree that holds its needles longer. “We’re always shooting at a target that never sits still,” Roger said.

Against a father’s wishes

The Unangst family first converted the home farm into Christmas tree production in 1984 – against the advice of “dear ol’ dad,” an old-time Pennsylvania Dutchman. “He didn’t want anyone on his grounds,” Unangst said.

But Unangst, with his brother and sister – who have since sold their business interests to him – his wife, Trudy, and children, Kody and Tori, kept at him until he approved the purchase and planting of 100 trees. Very much by the siblings’ design, 500 trees arrived. “He was very mad,” Unangst recalled. “But you couldn’t get anywhere with 100 trees, and it wasn’t worth the expense of tools and equipment for 100 trees.”

Father was a traditional hay, wheat, corn, soybean, six-cow, “that’s-what-we-did-last-year” kind of guy, which was Unangst’s least-favorite expression.

“We didn’t make any money last year, but we’re still going to plant 12 acres of wheat, and not make any money again this year,” Unangst explained.

Now, on a selling weekend that begins the weekend after Thanksgiving and ends right before Christmas, Unangst expects to sell 200 trees an hour, providing more than 5,000 families with a holiday tree in a season.

Read more: Trees, Reindeer and Santa Claus

The Seven-Year Pest Control Battle for Christmas Tree Crops

line of christmas trees

A robust pest management plan leads to a valuable Christmas tree crop.

You’ve got to be tough to be a Christmas tree!

According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, a self-described, “national information resource for value-added agriculture,” somewhere between one-quarter and one-half of all Christmas trees planted for the market don’t survive the seven or so year journey between the planting and sale of the tree. For those seven years, a Christmas tree is beset by an astonishing array of pests with insects, vertebrates, disease and weeds each vying for a “share” of the crop with weather often lending a helping hand to each. All that being the case, it’s obvious how important it can be to the bottom line of a Christmas tree farm, whether it be a large plantation or a “mom and pop” operation, to do everything possible to reduce tree loss and enhance tree quality and quantity for the seven years between planting and harvest.

It’s about the IPM

Discussing just how important pest control really is when it comes to Christmas tree operations, Sarah Pickel, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) education specialist at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and author of the department’s Christmas Tree Scouting Report comments, “For a crop that will be in the field for typically 7-plus years, pest problems are almost a guarantee and often those trees will face multiple pests in their life span. Some of those pests have the potential to negatively impact a tree’s aesthetics to the point of rendering it unsalable. If a grower is going to invest in this long term crop, they should be doing all they can to ensure its success. Even though becoming familiar with the large amount of pests affecting Christmas trees in the northeast can be time consuming, the value of being able to successfully combat each of those pests can’t be overstated.”

In recent decades, for growers across the agricultural sector, IPM has become the go-to process for enhancing not only production but, marketability. Much of Pickel’s professional life is spent working to help tree farmers — not only in Pennsylvania but throughout the Northeast — learn how to combat the multitude of pests threatening their Christmas trees and then put that learning to work on the ground to enhance productivity and marketability through IPM. Reflecting the importance of its position as the fourth largest cut Christmas tree producer in the nation, the Commonwealth has become a leader in Christmas tree research focused on IPM, then sharing findings with tree growers throughout the Northeast.

In its broadest application, IPM is an information based strategy aimed at controlling agricultural pests based on on-going monitoring of threats, on-going adjustment to treatment protocols in reaction to the results of that monitoring, the weighing of costs against benefits, minimization of risk to both the crop and to the larger environment of the growing operation, environmental enhancements where possible, and other factors to arrive at a balanced set of actions designed to ultimately optimize the productivity of an agricultural enterprise.

Paralysis by analysis

Because an IPM program can require a considerable effort gathering information, collating that information and acting on the results, some growers, especially those with smaller operations, can sometimes be intimidated by the seeming difficulty of bringing an IPM program to fruition.

On the other hand, as one mid-west expert on IPM has commented, “Farmers don’t become successful just by buying land and equipment. Being a farmer is a full time job, even when nothing is growing. To be successful, farmers must be continuously upgrading their knowledge of all aspects of their business, including IPM.”

According to Pickel, even the holders of very small acreages should not be intimidated by IPM. In the Northeast especially, thanks to collaboration between Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture and Penn State University, as well as similar efforts in New York at Cornell University and elsewhere, a wealth of easily accessible knowledge about Christmas trees and the pests that plague them is readily available. “Using IPM on any scale of farm will save growers money and time by allowing them to use small scale pest control options before problems get out of control,” Sarah puts forward. “When larger scale pest control actions are necessary, IPM can allow growers to limit pesticide by targeting precise life stages with one or two appropriately timed applications instead of just hoping that a pest will be controlled with multiple applications over a broader time frame. This savings on pesticide expense and application time is worthwhile to any grower, no matter the size of the farm. ”

“If a grower is overwhelmed by starting to use IPM,” Pickel continues, “I’d recommend changing practices for just one pest. A good option is the white pine weevil, a pest with great damage potential. By setting a simple emergence trap, growers can easily determine when this beetle active in the trees in spring. With one appropriately timed pesticide application, a grower can prevent the damage. After seeing the benefits from this IPM technique, growers will be more likely to branch out into a more complete scouting (scouting involves examination of the crop to determine the kind of pest present as well as the extent of any infestation) program. In Pennsylvania, more farms fall into the 1-2 acre size category than are in any other size category. That means there are a lot of small farms in operation out there and IPM could be useful to all of them.”

Reaping the rewards

Aside from the production and survivability aspects of an effective program of pest control, Christmas tree growers have some direct economic and marketability benefits to consider regarding IPM.

In the marketplace, Christmas tree growers face direct competition from manufactured or, “fake” trees. According to data available from the National Christmas Tree Association and other sources, sales of grown Christmas trees have been challenged significantly by inroads made by the manufactured Christmas tree industry. Industry efforts to make real Christmas trees the trees of choice have increasingly convinced the environmental industry to recommend real trees as the best choice for the environment. IPM affords a marketing positive to Christmas tree growers especially in terms of the attention paid to reduced use of pesticides and its attention to assuring beneficial insects are not harmed in pest control protocols.

IPM also provides tree growers with a direct financial benefit. The grower who sprays indiscriminately, Pickel comments, will soon find the method is ineffective against many Christmas tree pests. “Many of the conifer pests have a small window of time when they are actually vulnerable to pesticide sprays,” she continues. “Pesticides are not cheap and the application process can eat up time. If growers are just guessing at when to apply these chemical controls, IPM could definitely help them reduce the number of applications they need to make. Also, by using IPM to help them grow healthier, damage-free trees, they may be able to draw a better profit during the Christmas season.”

Growing degree day accumulation

Christmas tree growers desiring to begin implementing IPM on their own farms can ease into an IPM regimen by making use of the extensive information available via the internet. According to Sarah, “A good first step for farmers interested in trying IPM would be to start tracking growing degree day accumulation for their farm. Growing degree days are a way of tracking daily ambient heat accumulation for the purpose of determining when certain insect, mite or plant development events (egg hatch, adult emergence, etc.) may take place. Growers can track these using a simple calculation comparing average daily temperatures to a particular base temperature (50°F for most tree pests).” A detailed explanation can be found in this “Monitoring Trees for Pest Populations” downloadable PDF) or, Sarah says, “Smartphone apps are also available that will give you a growing degree day total for your zip code.”

Comparing the growing degree day accumulation to a chart containing the ranges for particular pest events, Pickel says, “Can at least narrow the window for growers regarding when they can target a particular pest.”

Lending support to other options, Pickel creates a weekly “scouting report” available online and useful throughout much of the northeast. It can be found at Penn State’s Scouting Reports between the end of March and the end of June. The report contains information on current pest activity in central Pennsylvania but is useful in other areas as an indicator of the approximate times pests may begin to become active and, susceptible to treatment protocols.

Christmas tree growers have a huge stake in constantly looking after the health of their trees. Reduced mortality means reduced costs, effective pest control means better quality trees grown economically and able to command the best price when sent to market, and better quality means an enhanced ability to compete on the market with “fake” trees. Integrated Pest Management is an effective and economically efficient management technique plantation owners and small lot farmers can utilize to grow and market Christmas trees profitably.

Cover Photo: Unangst Tree Farms in Bath, Pennsylvania (Photo: Jeff Yeager)