Lars Crooks loves the multigenerational aspect of his family’s Tuckamony Farm (http://www.tuckamony.com) in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Tuckamony, which was named in honor of Peg Tuckamony, one of the last Lenni Lenape Native Americans to live on the land, is one of the oldest family-run Christmas tree farms in the country. For more than a decade, Lars has been running the operation founded by Forrest C. Crooks, his great-grandfather, in 1929.
Forrest, who bought the farm in 1925 with his wife Irene, was from a Midwest farming family. He planted the first crop, consisting of Scots pine and Norway spruce, in 1929, and the first Christmas trees were sold in 1934.
Those first trees sold for 65 cents each, recalls Malcolm Crooks, Lars’ grandfather. He has devoted over 50 years to the family endeavor. Malcolm says it all began when a county extension agent suggested they plant Christmas trees. The first seedlings were bought from Maine and planted in a garden. “The first year, they arrived late for our season,” he says. “A bad situation, but Dad learned from that, as you do in farming, and later ordered from a more southern area and ordered less of them, which was good news to my brother [Cory] and I.”
Forrest and Malcolm focused on a style of farming based on soil and water conservation, says Lars, who marvels at the good fortune of having spent more time with his grandfather in the last 10 years than he did in the previous 29 years combined. And Lars admits he has trouble keeping up with Malcolm, who turned 91 in May.
Malcolm was a conscientious objector during World War II. From the 1940s to the 1980s, he worked on soil and water conservation projects for what’s now the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He still runs a chain saw, or a mattock, and does whatever he can to make water flow better on the farm. At the grassroots level, he’s been involved in numerous conservation-preservation projects and has been a member of the Heritage Conservancy and the Solebury Township board of supervisors.
“He’s a great, dedicated and motivated man,” Lars says.
Lars started working at the farm during the Christmas season when he was 8 years old. That continued for 12 years, and then he took a job elsewhere. He returned to the farm at his grandfather’s request. His father, Lee, has been marginally involved in the farm over the years due to a back injury. Lee maintains the vibrant holly orchard that Forrest planted in the 1950s. The holly is used in the farm’s handmade wreaths.
In 2002, Lars participated in the planting process for the first time, and by 2003 he was involved in the whole gamut of responsibilities.
Lars began the business succession in 2002 and did it on a seven-year growing cycle, so gradually his share in the business – his share of planted trees – has increased, while his grandfather’s share has decreased.
Christmas tree woodlots require “a considerable investment of money, considering the amount of time it takes to draw a profit,” he notes.
Growing and experimenting
Lars has been experimenting with trees and adding new varieties while phasing out traditional varieties that have become a nuisance to maintain – for example, Douglas fir, which he says “require so much coddling” because of the volume of chemicals necessary to keep them sale-ready. With a tip of the hat to his family’s conservation philosophy, Lars has started mowing instead.
“I just don’t feel that scorched earth is appropriate or works for us,” he says. “For our type of farm, we also don’t have the [insect] manifestations that larger farms might have, and we don’t have any less mites when we’re spraying. I just don’t feel that fungicide and pesticide [use] is the right path for us.”
Douglas fir is largely a victim of two fungi and a destructive insect, the Douglas fir needle midge. Their growth rate makes them profitable, but with the amount of spraying Douglas fir requires, he finds the profit is dampened.
Tuckamony’s mainstay has been the Douglas fir, but Lars says it’s dropping off in favor of concolor fir and blue spruce, a really good choose-and-cut tree.
He believes the future of his woodlot depends on drought-resistant trees that are suited for warm, humid spring and summer weather.
He’s begun opting for Fraser firs from North Carolina, as well as Turkish and Nordmann firs grown in U.S. nurseries with stock from Turkey and near the Black Sea, and to a degree above the Mediterranean Sea. “Unfortunately, deer like them as well,” Lars says. “And with the brutal winter we just had, a ton of my small trees were wiped out.”
He’s also started adding some Bulgarian fir, which is similar to the Nordmann, but grown more to the north and west of the Black Sea. He’s also trying Trojan fir that’s traced to Greece and Macedonia – all warmer zones to match his warmer climate.
Concolor fir is his favorite and his top seller. The drought-tolerant tree is grown from Mexico to British Columbia, and it grows even in rough soil. Lars says it’s a “fantastic Christmas tree with high needle retention.”
Other varieties being added include grand fir and Arizona corkbark fir with a beautiful shorter needle, almost like a blue spruce, except the needles aren’t sharp.
“A lot of it is courage,” Lars says of the experimentation. “There’s no guarantees – then you have to wait 10 years. They can’t be the only ones you plant, but you also don’t want to overplant that variety if you’re not going to continue down that path.”
The newer varieties are all slower growers. Fortunately, the corkbark and Korean fir, which both need 10 years of growth before they’re ready to market, are not appealing to deer.
Preparing for the selling season
At this time of year there’s mowing, and a mild herbicide is applied to suppress weeds. He also works on pruning pine trees – though he’s phasing out the original Scots pine – and clearing out trees infected with fungal pathogens.
“After planting season, it’s all maintenance until the sale season,” he says.
One thing Lars does that his grandfather didn’t is pay attention to pruning technique. He says pruning is not just about shaping, and he prefers to use Okatsune hedge or pruning shears.
“There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and a lot of ways to shape a tree,” Lars says, “but with forced shaping, once you start cutting that way, there’s no turning back. If you don’t continue doing it that way, a tree will grow out of control.”
Selling an experience and an education
With his farm’s location and the long history of the business, Lars prefers to market and sell an experience. “It’s wonderful, especially where we are and the agricultural history here,” he says.
He recently expanded on the opportunity the setting affords and invited local craftspeople and artisans to sell their handiwork at the farm over the holidays. Customers can shop for their tree and gifts in one location – convenience for the customers, and more shared profit for the Crooks family.
As a marketing tool, he’s always given coloring books to the children who come to the farm with their families in search of the perfect Christmas tre
e. Now he’s creating and printing a coloring book with content that’s unique to the farm and its history. There will be a free version, as well as a version with higher-quality paper available for purchase as a keepsake.
He can afford to experiment, since the tree farm does not provide his primary income. Both he and his wife, Leila Arbani Crooks, work off the farm. He is a chef, and Leila is a nurse who has recently moved into some administrative duties in the medical field.
Lars says working the woodlot solely for profit would be a disservice to the spirit of the property. He feels education is important, and it’s a key reason why the farm partners with the Bucks County Audubon Society, an outgrowth that blossomed in the late 1960s with the formation of the Honey Hollow Watershed Association.
Today, the Honey Hollow Environmental Education Center is operated by the Bucks County Audubon Society, which shares fields for outdoor education programs with Tuckamony. The Crooks family volunteers in the efforts to boost declining membership numbers. “I have suggested development ideas and helped with property maintenance, and we partner during the Christmas season so our customers learn something while they’re getting their tree. It’s an enhancement for us and seems like another way to keep our customers coming back,” Lars explains.
“We just feel that the experience we’re offering our customers is better than at other farms,” he says. “A lot of it is our location; they feel like they’re coming to a farm, and not just another spot where they sell Christmas trees. People realize it, and we know it from the positive feedback we get, even with the changes I’ve made. We would like to continue that in an area where the experience is dwindling to some degree.”
Sales are always tied to precipitation, and this past year net sales were down 20 percent because of precipitation on two sale weekends. “It keeps people in, and we don’t get those two weeks back,” Lars says. He’s considered staying open at night and installing lights, but doesn’t want to cause issues with the township, though there’s a lot of goodwill. His grandfather’s birthday, May 17, is even a township holiday. “The township has always been good to us,” he says.
With a 70-acre farm – and 16 acres of it interplanted in trees that are organized in blocks by variety – there’s plenty to do and lots of history to maintain. Lars respects the farm’s history, and his family’s conservation techniques endure, but that doesn’t keep him from making changes and building for the future.
The Honey Hollow Watershed
In 1939, with the technical assistance of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, Forrest Crooks joined with his neighbors to develop a conservation program for the approximately 650-acre Honey Hollow Watershed, which includes Tuckamony Farm.
According to the National Park Service website, the Honey Hollow Watershed was the “first small upland watershed in agricultural use to demonstrate that soil, water and wildlife conservation and flood prevention could be achieved through cooperative local action.”
The site notes: “The project attracted national attention and became a model of cooperative farmers’ action to conserve natural resources. The history of the watershed in regard to conservation began in the 1930s, when the owners of the farms along Honey Creek observed how their fields were washing away. Cultivation by machinery had caused serious sheet and gully erosion on the upland farms, while siltation struck those on the downslope. It was obvious that the erosion must be checked, or else the land would be ruined for agricultural use.”
According to the site, the landowners banded together to carry out soil and water conservation practices, including construction of terraces and diversion ditches to control runoff on steep slopes. In addition, dense hedges were planted to check erosion and provide habitat, and several ponds were built and stocked with fish.
The watershed was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1969. Similar conservation programs across the country continue to be patterned after this successful pioneering effort.
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.