By Matt Reese
The Ohio Christmas Tree Association is preparing for a big year in 2011. In the 50th year of the organization, just after the 500th anniversary of the first decorated Christmas tree, Ohio will be hosting the National Christmas Tree Association Convention in 2011. Ohio ranks ninth in total Christmas tree production and eighth in the number of Christmas tree farms the nation, yet has never hosted the national event.
“We want to show the nation’s Christmas tree farmers the high quality of Christmas tree farms in this state and we also want to showcase Ohio,” said Dave Reese, Ohio Christmas Tree Association president. “Ohio has a lot of great things to offer and we have the opportunity to show that to Christmas tree growers from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.”
The convention will be held at the beautiful Sawmill Creek Resort on the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky. The area offers a number of attractions including Cedar Point and, more importantly, a number of top-notch Christmas tree farms that will be featured on tours. At the Aug. 10-13 convention, visitors will pick one of three daylong tours featuring Christmas tree farms and other stops of interest. Here are some highlights from the Christmas tree farms featured on the tours.
Sugar Pines Farm, Geuaga County
When Glenn Battles and his wife bought a sprawling farm in 1977, he wasn’t planning on growing Christmas trees. The land he purchased had not been farmed in 30 years and required a lot of cleanup to transform it into a useable property. Heavy brush, old woodlots and some younger trees dominated most of the land.
“We had some pasture and beef cattle and we made some maple syrup. It was a lot of work to bring it around. There were also some white pines growing here that were 4 years old,” Battles said. “My brother (who also has a tree farm) decided we should sell them.”
With some shearing and word-of mouth marketing, Battles found himself in the surprising role of a Christmas tree farmer running Sugar Pines Farm. After his first couple years of sales, he decided to start planting more trees in 1980. He discovered a fairly steep learning curve in the early years of Christmas tree production.
“I made plenty of mistakes, and one of the bigger mistakes I made was not joining the National and State Christmas Tree Growers organizations right from the get-go,” he said. “When you start a business like this, that’s when you need to join your product specific agricultural organization the most. I started going to the meetings and, although I haven’t
always been a very good student, in those meetings I was paying pretty close attention. There was so much information that was so helpful.”
Armed with an increasing amount of information, Battles drastically improved Sugar Pines Farm from its earliest days.
“I started doing soil tests and preparing the ground as far as pH and fertility. I started tilling up foot-wide strips in the fall to plant into the next spring,” he said. “I have shields on the tiller to keep the soil in the strip and then put down fertilizer depending on the soil requirements. I re-till the strips in the spring and I wait for two rains to settle the ground, spray with herbicide and plant with a pull behind planter.”
As he expanded his farm, he divided the total tree acreage (40 acres) by 10 and planted one-tenth of the ground per year. This year he will be selling Grand fir, Frasier fir, Canaan fir, blue spruce, Norway spruce and white pine. A perennial favorite for many, the Scotch pine, does not grow well on the farm’s sandier soil and lower elevation.
The tree quality has come a long way since those first white pines. Battles even won reserve champion and the People’s Choice Award at the 2008 Ohio State Fair.
Weed control is always a challenge, and deer are a problem as well.
“If a deer thinks a Canaan fir is dinner, he thinks a Grand fir is dessert,” Battles said. “The deer severely impact at least 50 trees a year.”
He sells trees by the foot with per-foot prices ranging from $4.50 for white pines to $10 for Frasier fir, and he sells a whopping 3,000 trees a year to customers primarily from the greater Cleveland area. He advertises locally, though word-of-mouth references from his customers are the best way to attract new customers.
Another real boon to Sugar Pines Farm has been the Lake County Farmpark that is nearby and draws many area visitors. The attraction’s highlight of the holidays is one of Battles’ trees.
When customers first arrive on Battles’ beautiful 100-acre, wooded farm, the first stop is a nativity scene. They then can visit the beautiful barn in the middle of the farm that features a moving tree monorail with 37 dangling pre-cut Christmas trees rotating around.
Along with the Christmas trees, customers can purchase wreathes, swags, maple syrup, hot drinks, fresh dug trees from the farm and other holiday items. Customers can also go on a 10-minute wagon ride around the farm to take in the sights.
Mountain Creek Tree Farm, Lake County
Mountain Creek Tree Farm is located just east of Cleveland in Concord where the Reeves family’s tradition of farming began in 1927. The farm is located just above Cascade Valley on 52-acres of some of the most beautiful rolling farmland and woodland in Northeast Ohio.
“My great uncle planted our first 1,000 evergreen seedlings in 1949 and sold our first tree seven years later in 1956,” owner Kenneth Reeves said on the farm’s Web site. “Today we continue the family farm tradition and have over 17,000 of the finest Christmas trees.”
The choose-and-cut farm has a gift shop and a selection of Christmas trees that matches the quality of the beautiful scenery of the area.
Reeves is the third generation of his family farming on the land and he is working through the various issues with the economic, legal, marketing, and agronomic transition of the farm.
“Nothing has been done to the land for over 60 years. It has not been tilled or fertilized. Now we’re starting to rework the farm as we transition into the next generation,” he said. “Being a third generation Christmas tree farms are fairly unique because they are a lot of work for not a lot of money, so unless you either have economy of size which enables you work it full time or you have income from other sources, many farms just don’t make it to successive generations. Plus, most importantly you have to have a true love for it.”
The farm has around 20 acres in Christmas trees and retails over 1,000 a year.
Galehouse Tree Farm, Wayne County
Harry Galehouse started selling Christmas trees from a 10-acre plot. Since then the second, third and fourth generations are keeping the farms going. The farm now has 180,000 evergreen trees in cultivation on 200 acres. The farms are presently owned and operated by Shirley Galehouse and her daughter Amy.
“We sold our first tree in 1932 and that makes us one of the oldest choose and cut Christmas tree farms in the state an one of the older farms in U.S.,” said Amy Galehouse. “Most tree farms started after they closed national forests to tree cutting in the 1940s.”
Tours on the farm will include fields that have been rotated five times, which is saying something when the typical Christmas tree crop rotation is 10 or 15 years. The farm is also home to some of the oldest Canaan fir plantings in the state.
The farm offers choose and cut tree and also wholesale cut Christmas trees and balled and burlapped trees for landscaping. The field manager helps us with the 20 or more students from our local high school, who trim trees in the summer and do the wholesale and retail harvesting in the winter.
One barn houses a gift shop and retail trees, in another barn all of the wreaths, centerpieces, specialty roping, and other greens pieces are made. All of the designing and decorating is done by Shirley and Amy, both of whom have studied at the Hixson School of Floral Design in Lakewood.
Pine Tree Barn, Wayne County
This impressive 200-acre family Christmas tree farm overlooks the scenic Killbuck Valley and lakes and is one of Ohio’s oldest and largest Christmas tree farms. The farm offers Fraser Fir, Douglas Fir, Canaan Fir, Blue Spruce, Scotch Pine and White Pine in heights more than 20-feet tall.
“We have approximately 150,000 trees, and we specialize in big and tall fresh cut real trees,” according to the farm’s Web site.
When getting their tree, customers can ride horse-drawn wagons or unique Pine Tree Express cabooses to the fields. Customers can also explore the 25,000 square feet of the restored Dutch bank barn’s nooks and crannies for a wide selection of Christmas goodies, gifts and fine home furnishings.
The farm also features a gourmet restaurant, furniture store, and interior design services.
Whitehouse Tree Farm, Lucas County
The farm gets its name from the nearby small town of Whitehouse that is a short drive from Toledo, where owner Duke Wheeler works as a physical therapist.
Wheeler and his wife, Martha, are the third set of owners of the land that already had 3,000 Christmas trees growing on it when they purchased the beautiful farm, complete with long gravel lanes, multiple ponds and a hardwood backdrop, in 1990. With the best of intentions Wheeler continued the tree planting tradition on the farm but realized he had a lot to learn.
A big part of the tree production learning process has involved site selection for the different types of trees.
“In the past we’ve planted in the wrong spots and we would lose the trees after four or five years,” Wheeler said. “We learned from our mistakes.”
The richer soils on the farm need to be reserved for the higher dollar, slower growing firs and spruces, while the poorer soils are adequate for white and Scotch pine production. Soil fertility is assessed every two years to identify the best sites for the different varieties and to adequately supplement the growing trees with fertilizers.
Wheeler has learned some other helpful tricks of the trade since his early days as a Christmas tree grower.
“We’ve learned we need to space the trees to fit a riding mower between them, the proper timing for tree shearing and proper care after the sales season, like pulling the stumps,” he said.
Now, in addition to a butterfly house, shrimp production ponds and a corn maze, the farm produces top-notch fir, spruce and pine trees for the local customers. There are currently 35,000 to 40,000 trees planted on 60 to 70 acres on the farm. Customers pay by the foot (from $6 to $12 per foot depending on the variety) for their carefully coddled Christmas trees that have grown in the rich, Black Swamp soil.
“We really work to create a good experience for people out here. We want the customers to remember a beautiful family-friendly environment,” Wheeler said. “I love interacting with the people who come here. The time it takes people to find a tree really isn’t long enough for some of our customers that end up staying another 45 minutes just to enjoy the day. We even have some people tailgate out here. They bring their lunches. We feel like a part of the community with this farm.”
There are also a wide variety of tree sizes sold from the farm.
“We sell some 20-footers on down to table-toppers,” Wheeler said. “There were a lot of people getting 12-foot or 14-foot trees for awhile. But after they do that once or twice, they usually go back to 8- or 9-footers.”