By Matt Reese
A stealthy hunter slowly creeps through an evergreen forest, scanning the surroundings for his prey. A cold November wind whips through the pines, sending a shiver through the hunter’s body. Undaunted he presses on, silent as snow.
Through the cover of some fir branches the hunter stops, keen eyes focused on his quarry — a buck deer warily watching from his spot nestled up beneath the green boughs of the winter landscape. A flash of the bow and the deer slumps. A flick of the knife and the hunter’s task is fulfilled with another successful hunt on the DiVencenzo Family Tree Farm.
The tradition started when an upset too-young-to-deer-hunt four-year-old couldn’t go deer hunting with his dad. To amend the situation, the boy’s grandmother instead took him to pick out a Christmas tree and hunt for a stuffed toy deer hidden in the tree field using a toy bow and plastic hunting knife. The result is a harvest of fond memories generated from an amazing string of hunting success stories for the young hunter for both Christmas trees and the toy deer.
“If you want a tree you go to Home Depot. If you want a family experience, you go to a tree farm,” said Al DiVencenzo. “You come here for that experience. We don’t sell trees, we sell the tradition and the family values and the opportunity to come out as a family to get a tree.”
DiVencenzo grew up on a Lorain County dairy farm. His father died in 1971 and the family had to sell off parts of the farm to pay taxes and make ends meet. By 1983, DiVencenzo was left with a narrow
16-acre strip of land running from the road to the woods in back. He worked full time as a special needs teacher and wanted to get back into agriculture on his land.
“The equipment was getting too big to farm it. We needed an alternative crop,” he said. “Ohio State University Extension had a course locally to help us get started growing Christmas trees. They outlined the economics and the literature. At the time, there were quite a few good people in OSU Extension doing tree research and it appeared to be a nice alternative crop, so we planted some Scotch pine and white pine.”
Production of DiVencenzo’s alternative crop had a bigger learning curve than anticipated, but after years of trial and error, the farm has established some successful techniques for tree production.
“We plant trees in April either with a tree planter or inter-planted by hand with a 36-millimeter auger on the end of a cordless drill to make holes. We plant until early May,” he said. “We have heavy clay and plant on a ridge. We have a three-point implement that can go through sod and make a ridge and then we plant on those ridges. We shear with Beneke pruner starting in late May with the tops of the trees in pines and work through the fir later in the summer. Weed control is a constant with mowing out there. I try to use some herbicide in the rows. I walk the trees to look for insects and will spray targeted areas. I don’t plant a single species of trees in a block — I mix them up so I don’t lose a
whole block from an insect. It takes more time to do that, though. And, nobody in those first OSU Extension classes talked much about deer damage. We have a lot of deer damage.”
DiVencenzo also had to figure out how to deal with one of the most daunting initial challenges of growing Christmas trees: the economic gap between planting and harvest.
“We kept putting money in the ground but were not seeing any income for several years. So we started selling wreathes made from greens from some of the deer damaged trees on the farm. Then I started going to neighbors seeing if I could get greenery to make wreaths and the wreath business started to take off. You only use the very end of the branches so you go through a lot of trees. We ended up going to the UP of Michigan and bringing back boughs to make all of the wreaths,” he said. “We sell around 250 wreaths a year here, mostly traditional round. Now we get our greenery from a place in Cleveland and we still use greenery from scrap trees here and make up to 48-inch wreaths.
“And, Mitchell Wire Products in Minnesota makes these Block O wire wreath frames for us. I sent them a diagram one year and they sent me a prototype. You have to order them in January when they can get set up for it. We ship the finished wreaths to places like South Dakota, Washington, D.C. and, oh my goodness, even Michigan. We call them displaced Ohioans. Sales of the Block O wreaths really depend on a certain football game at the end of the season.”
The farm also has had to evolve with customers demand.
“My customers in the old neighborhoods in Cleveland want narrow and tall trees and I shear for that out in the fields. The customer determines what it is I grow and sell,” he said. “And they want the tree earlier. Now we open the weekend before Thanksgiving and we will be busier that weekend than on Dec. 17.”
While there were (and continue to be) challenges with tree production, marketing offered an even greater challenge initially for the operation.
“I grew up knowing how to grow things, but this is more than growing a Christmas tree, this is about marketing and working with people,” DiVencenzo said. “I enjoy this time of year the most. The trees provide us the opportunity to provide something for families. It is intense work. When you are shearing in July, it is hot, tough work. This is the time we see the rewards and get to work with customers year after year. It is why we do this. I really enjoy that. It is the people side that is most enjoyable, but sometimes this marketing stuff can be overwhelming.”
For DiVencenzo, the marketing on the farm really benefitted by learning from others through the Ohio Christmas Tree Association (OCTA).
“In 1983 I didn’t know a thing about advertising. I didn’t even know you had to put a sign out at the end of the road to show people how to get to the farm. That is the value of being a part of an organization — learning those kinds of ideas,” said DiVencenzo, who is now OCTA president. “Our association is great about sharing ideas.”
One of those ideas led to the very popular “Scholarship Forest” on the farm.
“We are still on just the 16 acres. That is limiting what I can sell. I am only selling maybe 400 trees out of the field each year but more people kept coming to the farm. That led to the Scholarship Forest around 10 years ago. It was an idea from another Christmas tree grower,” DiVencenzo said. “I had started bringing in pre-cut Frasier firs to supplement sales in the field. But what was the incentive for people to buy those pre-cut trees? Well, one of the local schools was looking to do fundraising and so we started giving some of the proceeds of those pre-cut trees to charity. Now three local schools and the Grafton Public Library get some of the proceeds. If you buy a tree from the Scholarship Forest, the tags on those trees have a hole punched in them. When the customers pay, they get to choose the charity and that charity gets $10 for every tag we get. All those charities do all of the advertising and promotion of the fundraiser and the tree farm. They send flyers home from school and advertise the farm in town. The Scholarship Forest volume grows every year. By doing that, we are giving a good chunk of money back to the community and I don’t have to advertise. It works. Now it is pushing 500 trees a year — more than I am selling from the field.”
In addition, DiVencenzo promotes his farm with wooden coins he hands out every year, another idea he got from a fellow Christmas tree farmer.
“In 2003 we started with the wooden coins. It used to be that if you went to a bar you’d get your second drink with a wooden nickel. We use them to hand out to people so they can remember our farm. We get 1,500 of them every year with the farm name, the year and our contact information and if you walk up to me I’ll greet you with a wooden nickel,” he said. “People get these, take them home and throw them in their junk drawer and then pull them out the following year and bring them back and I give them one for the next year. Now we have people collecting them. Some people even drill a hole in them and hang them on their Christmas tree. I don’t know why, but they do.”
In the last couple of years, OCTA has taken an additional step in marketing by participating in the national checkoff program and working with the Christmas Tree Promotion Board.
“The checkoff has been a positive boost. The ads from the Promotion Board have been beneficial and they have gotten people talking about real trees. I can’t afford to make those types of videos and promotional materials and we can use them to help market our farm,” DiVencenzo said. “From the Ohio point of view, working with the Promotion Board has been very beneficial. People here can see the value of their 15 cents a tree that they are providing. Advertising is extremely important.”
OCTA is working to meet the needs of the wide range of Christmas tree farmers in the state.
“Like most of agriculture, we are an organization where we have an aging population that needs help with some of the new technology and promotional opportunities. At the same time, we are constantly looking for new and younger people to get into the business and we are seeing two or four new growers at every meeting,” DiVencenzo said. “We need to establish the next generation and we must promote information about how to get started in the business a well. We have a mentoring program in the organization to help with that. Ohio is also a net importer of trees. We grow 5 million and we sell 8 million and those extras are coming in from other states like Michigan and North Carolina. We have room to grow and are holding strong in our membership.”