Donner peeking out of the barn door

Donner peeking out of the barn door

It’s like anticipating Christmas Day at Vince and Deb Zarate’s Z Arch Barn Farm  in Easton, Pennsylvania. The holiday season presents the opportunity for added revenue and a chance to make a profit by year’s end. The waiting is more nail-biting when you’re a start-up operation with big ideas.

About 5,000 Christmas trees are growing at the farm, which is also home to a small herd of reindeer. With the Crayola crayon factory nearby, the area is a children’s paradise.

It will be several years before the trees are ready to sell, so for now they offer precut Christmas trees that they purchase wholesale, wreaths made on-site, plus photos with Santa. The Zarate story is a lesson in planting the roots of a successful Christmas tree farm.

The first year was more successful than the couple could have imagined, and with the strength of word-of-mouth and social media marketing, it just keeps getting better.

“That first year, we made 1,000 magic reindeer packets, and last year it was more,” Deb said. “Each of the kids who sit with Santa gets one. It’s a combination of oatmeal and glitter. The notion is that you spread some of the food on your lawn on Christmas Eve, and Santa sees the glitter in the yard and pulls the reindeer in.”

The second year, they made 2,500 cardboard headbands with the farm’s logo and slogan—Santa’s Pit Stop—printed on them to hand out to children.

“But we’re trying to make this as non-commercial as we can. We want it to be more of an experience,” Vince stated.

“We have so many ideas, but it will be years before we realize any profit,” he continued. “It will be at least four more years before any of these trees are ready. People don’t understand, but it takes seven to 10 years to have a saleable tree from when you start.”

Getting started

Clarice and her baby Moose

Clarice and her baby Moose

Currently there’s just 3-plus acres planted for the tree operation. The Zarates plan to max out at 8 acres. There’s also 0.75 acre planted in alfalfa, which is used to feed the reindeer.

Vince hired some local kids to help plant the trees, but he does all the trimming and shaping of the young trees himself. That work starts in August. For planting, Vince augers an 8- to 12-inch-diameter hole, and then he and Deb plant and pack the trees in the ground.

The trees are planted parallel to the road frontage. The initial 2,000 transplants were a split of Douglas fir and Colorado blue spruce. They recently tried growing seedlings from nearby Berks County, purchasing 1,000 Fraser firs for $600, but they couldn’t keep up with the maintenance. They mowed over the area and chalked it up as a business loss.

“Seedlings are seedlings,” Vince said of the learning experience. “The rest of these are transplants, trees that are mostly now 4 years old.”

The species growing at Z Arch Barn Farm include Fraser, Douglas, Canaan and Con-Color fir and Colorado blue spruce. Vince noted that Douglas fir are the hardest to grow, often dropping needles due to a moisture issue. Fraser firs are susceptible to root rot, he added.

The Zarates are members of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association, and are interested in following the association’s lead, which includes adding variety in terms of the species they plant, such as Korean and Corkbark fir. The Colorado spruce, once a kingpin in the Christmas tree market, has decreased in popularity, but is still considered a traditional customer favorite.

Unsure of the demand for precut trees for the first year, the couple ordered 200 Douglas and Fraser fir trees, but ultimately purchased 50 more. The Zarates ordered 250 trees the next year and still needed a 50-tree supplement as the season progressed. “This year, we’re ordering 300 trees, and when they go, they’re gone,” Vince said. “I’m a quality-oriented guy. (The trees have) to be right or I don’t want to deal with it. But this is all a steep learning curve.”

Reindeer grazing with barn in the background

Reindeer grazing with the barn in the background

Where the reindeer roam

There are seven reindeer at Z Arch Barn Farm, including a bull-calf that was born at the farm this year. They named him Moose because his legs are so long.

The rest of the herd includes 400-pound Gus, Vixen, Clarice and Donner (Moose’s parents), along with Ginger and Rudolph. Santa’s classic team had eight reindeer, and Rudolph was the ninth, but the Zarates would like to have eight. Of the three females who can be bred this year, the Zarates are hoping two take. “It’s hit or miss,” Vince added.

With a budget of $600 to feed the herd, their diet consists of Mazuri, a reindeer-specific pellet from Purina, a shredded sugar beet filler, beef grain from Kleintop Dairy Farm (owned by Vince’s cousin), grass hay and the farm’s own alfalfa. They’re also turned out for grazing.

They’re kept in a state-regulated, 8-foot-high fencing with weather shelters. A brush from a street sweeper is being repurposed; placed upright in their pen, the reindeer use the brush to rub the velvet off their antlers. The antlers naturally fall off between January and February.

The Zarates own three 100-year-old sleighs that they’ve restored. They’re used as the setting for the photos with Santa. Commenting on his attempts to train the reindeer to pull one of the sleighs, Vince said, “They’re either smart or they give up easily.”

The operation is licensed through the state game commission, as well as the state and federal departments of agriculture. The reindeer are registered with the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association.

“We researched this once we had our minds made up. We were persistent. You can be on a waiting list for three to four years, especially if you want calves. Heifers take longer. Bull calves are easier to come by, but interested parties had better consider the magnitude of future seasonal ruts,” he explained.

Other concerns include chronic wasting disease (CWD), which is in the same family as mad cow disease. There hasn’t been any documented cases of reindeer having CWD, but some states, like neighboring New Jersey, closed their borders to reindeer when CWD was found in deer in captivity. Z Arch Barn Farm had been requested to do a display for a minor league baseball team in Maryland for a Christmas in July night, but Maryland forbids even temporary residency of reindeer in the state for any length of time other than traveling through.

Building a barn and opening the doors

Donner grazing

Donner grazing

Vince, who previously taught woodworking at the Career Institute of Technology, used his background and designed the barn. He had the two louver vents and windows made before they even broke ground.
A mason from the school did the masonry work, and a former student who owns a construction business organized a group to help Vince build the barn.

Construction started the last week of September 2011, with a goal of having a roof on the structure by Thanksgiving, which meant battling a 10-inch snowfall in late October. They had finished the woodwork inside the barn a year later, right around the time Hurricane Sandy hit.

Deb said the barn “squeaked like crazy” during Sandy. “It was eerie.”

By fall 2012, the trees were planted and three reindeer had taken up residence in the barn. Then in October, the farm hosted its first Penn State University Open Farm Tour “just to get people in to see what they thought,” Vince said. When the farm officially opened its doors for the Christmas season that year, it was covered by several local magazines and newspapers, and the Zarates haven’t looked back.

“I get enjoyment out of seeing people enjoy themselves,” Vince said. “That’s my gratification.”