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