If there’s something in common among the region’s Christmas tree farms, it’s that their owners like to see things grow. And true to form, many have successfully grown their trees and their businesses.
That hasn’t been easy in an industry that’s been gradually constricting. Take, for example, the number of growers in the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association. Long-standing members remember when that figure was well over 600. Now, the organization confirms that there are just 159 members.
Even so, the PCTGA website continues to claim that Pennsylvania ranks third in the number of Christmas tree farms in the nation—more than 1,400 of them. So, apparently, roughly 10 percent are members. The farms produce about one million cut trees a year on nearly 31,000 acres. Landenberg’s Ellis Schmidt has 60 of those acres. He was association president from 1988 to 1992, and he attended his first meeting in the early ’70s. Now 88, he laments, “The group has aged. Most are gone.”
Some tree farms have transitioned. Others—like Schmidt’s—are navigating that process. Schmidt’s son, Erich, who has a landscaping business and a contiguous property, has expressed interest. Most, though, have simply closed.
But Ellis is stubborn. He planted 2,500 new trees earlier this year. Considering that it takes seven years for a new tree to come to market, it’s yet another investment in the future. And make no mistake about it—Ellis stuck them in the ground himself riding along on the planter towed by tractor his son drove. “I like to do it,” he says. “I planned on planting until I was 72, which meant we’d be cutting those trees until I was 80. Now I’m 88 and still planting—so you see how good that plan has done.”
It’s not that demand has receded. Schmidt has counted 80 cars in his parking lot at one time. In fact, he says consumers want their trees earlier and earlier. For years, he’d kicked off his choose-and-cut season the first Saturday in December. Then the push was to open on Black Friday. Now, the requests are coming even earlier for pre-Thanksgiving family gatherings. “That’s asking a lot of the trees,” says Schmidt, who averages between 1,500 and 2,000 sales a year. “We get an occasional comment about a dry tree, but not that many. Some are now simply abusing the tree.”
A short drive away is Chester County’s Old Stone Farm in Lewisville—all of a post office and a crossroads for routes 841 and 472. There, Mark and Mary Gruber have grown Christmas trees since 1992. Mark’s father, Al, grew trees in Newark, Del., and he’s grown since he was 15—50 years. Though he ran a less-sophisticated and smaller operation, Al was able to pay for his son’s engineering education at the University of Delaware. In turn, Mark has paid for his three children’s college educations with tree sales.
One of those kids, Evan, is studying soil agriculture at Penn State University. He’s involved in the tree business, with 10 acres of his own on the family’s 75-acre farm. At 34, Evan represents a young man in an older man’s world. “For new farmers to get started, it takes capital,” he says. “My grandpa had a successful career already, so he had capital to get started. Dad had capital, but for young people to wait seven years (‘with zero revenue,’ Mark adds), they don’t have that time. It’s why the moms-and-pops are disappearing, so you’re going to have bigger and bigger farms growing more and more trees. Just buying the land requires capital.”
Old Stone Farm usually sells out at some point every year, cutting 300 to 400 trees a weekend in mature fields until all the available options are gone. This season should present an interesting supply-and-demand challenge. Christmas tree farms out west were hit particularly hard by wildfires this year, so the demand will be on growers in the East to ship across country. Prices (yet to be determined at press time) might be up—especially since gas prices have risen, too. “We’re expanding because other people are getting smaller or getting out,” says Mark, who retired from his engineering career earlier this year. “But it takes seven years to expand. You can do it one year at a time, but it still takes that much time to see the results of expansion. It’s gradual.”
What goes in the ground every spring (allowing roots to expand through summer and fall) has changed drastically. When Schmidt began planting in the ’70s, it was all Scotch Pine—something he hasn’t planted at all in the past 30 years. Popularity gravitated toward the Douglas Fir, and now his most popular tree is a Fraser Fir—and interest is spiking in exotic firs. Old Stone Farm features mostly Douglas Frasers and Concolor and Cannan firs, many of which are visible through wide second-floor double doors in the 150-year-old restored barn overlooking the acreage.
Typically, Christmas tree farms are family affairs. For years (when she could), Ellis’ wife, Joan, helped in the fields, shearing and mowing. Six months younger than her husband, Joan was born for Christmas— her birthday is Dec. 23. When they began in 1969, they had the house and a little over nine acres. Over time, they made six more purchases of parcels ranging from 1.5 to 17.5 acres, ultimately amassing a 60-acre farm.
The Grubers’ farm was assembled in three strategic land acquisitions, one of which prevented a townhouse development. Its southern border is the Mason-Dixon Line. “The idea was always to develop the business as a sustainable farm,” says Mark, who also runs a successful year-round cider operation there. “For a small farmer who’s growing corn and soybeans, that’s hard. It takes a specialty— one that can be sold directly to the public. And Christmas trees are good for that.”
Operations certainly changed a year ago with the restrictions from the pandemic. The Schmidts could no longer serve free coffee and donuts, and they had to limit entry into the barn gift shop, where they sell wreaths, roping, tree ornaments and the special holiday woodcraft products they source on yearly buying trips to Germany.
Normally at the Schmidt farm, a tractor and wagon would transport families into the fields to make selections. Last year, buyers walked. School tours were put on hold, and nighttime hay rides have faded with time. At press time, no one knew how, or if, restrictions would impact business again this season. “The main thing is consistency,” says Ellis, who also grows and cuts a two-acre field of winterberry holly, an overlapping agricultural product. “With the virus, we’re not sure what this year will bring.”
But Ellis knows what he likes. Growing trees and working on equipment and machinery will always remind him of his days growing up on his mother’s family farm in Bunker Hill, Ill. By now, he’s reached a certain level of satisfaction that he’s still doing what he did as a young boy—except with Christmas trees, not hay. “Wherever we go, someone has bought a tree from us,” says Ellis. “We go to a doctor’s office, and there’s a nurse who’s been a customer. We have third-generation buyers now. We’re not selling trees—we’re really selling traditions.”
For Mary Gruber, it can’t be much more satisfying to know that her custom wreaths—some 20 of them, which measure six-feet each in diameter—have been landing as decorations around the outside of Philadelphia’s City Hall over the last four years. “One day, we got a call, and they said they needed 20 large wreaths,” Mark recalls. “We said, ‘Okay. Where?’ They said, ‘Philadelphia.’”
By the time Christmas Day arrives, the Grubers are seriously “Christmased out.” The family celebrates quietly at home. Though they could afford to travel and get away, they prefer to stay close to home. “We don’t go to the Bahamas or anything,” Mark says. “There’s no hype here—it’s a true farm. There’s no Santa, no hayrides. The owner doesn’t even have a white beard. We truly market it as a family farm.”