By Matt Reese
The holiday season means many different things to many different people — faith, family, tradition, gatherings, and decorations. For the Bauer family in Huron County, these important holiday staples remain a focus all year on their Piney Paradise Christmas Tree Farm as they prepare for the holiday sales season.
In the early 1970s Gary Bauer served as an FFA advisor at Big Walnut in central Ohio. During that time he became familiar with Wade and Gatton Nurseries. He also worked with the FFA selling Christmas trees as a fundraiser. This led to an initial effort to plant Christmas trees on a few acres in the Sunbury area. In the late 70s, though, career changes took the Bauer family to where Gary grew up in Huron County. He took a different job teaching ag, and later moved into an Extension role as an ag educator in the diverse, horticulture-heavy Erie County. His wife Mary took a job in the medical field and they took their interest in Christmas trees with them. They started planting Christmas trees in Huron County in 1978.
“It all started to pay for the college tuition for our kids. When we started back in the 70s there, the whole idea was to supplement the cost for our three children to go to college, and it did,” Gary said. “Now we have 20,000 Christmas trees on 20 acres. We are selling around 900 or so a year.”
Gary retired from Ohio State University Extension and then served as county commissioner, planting and caring for trees with his family all the while. The Bauer children are grown, with families of their own, and most of the family members are still working with Christmas trees. Scott Bauer and his wife, Jill, Robyn [Bauer] Rogers and her husband, Eric, and their children are all involved. Wendy [Bauer] Reeves and her daughters help during the sales season with wreaths, swags and other decorative items as well.
The operation has expanded to a second farm with three generations of Bauers now working together year-round to prepare for the holiday sales season. Most of the trees are started, often as plugs, in a nursery area.
“We can simply rototill deep, take a shovel handle and punch a hole and put the plug in the hole in the nursery,” Gary said.
They are grown there for a year in the partial shade provided by mature trees along a fencerow where they can be easily watered with a tractor with a water tank. After a year in the nursery, the trees are planted in the field using a laser level for straight rows. The holes are hand dug with a shovel to make sure there is plenty of room for the abundant roots that come out of the trees that have been growing in the nursery. The biggest planting to date was 4,000 trees in 2015. With some hired help, the family planted the 4,000 trees in one day using shovels and plenty of hand labor.
The shearing for the trees is done in the summer months with the second and third generation of the family taking on the labor-intensive duties. In addition, there is almost a constant need for mowing to control vegetation, scouting for insect and disease issues and spraying to treat those issues accordingly.
The sales season kicks off the day after Thanksgiving each year, with retail sales at two different farms — the original home farm and the more recently added expansion farm for the operation. The different locations have different hours, but both include a retail shop.
“We have wreathes and pine roping and a variety of table items at both sites and complimentary hot chocolate and cookies at both sites,” said Mary Bauer. “We price by the variety, not by the size. All of our Scotch pine and white pine are one price. All of our short needle trees are another price, so that eliminates measuring. We tell that to our customers when they come in and normally we show them a sample of the different needle types that we have available. We tell them where they are located in the field, supply them with a handsaw, and we have wagons that they can take with them. And normally, our customers are very congenial about waiting until they need a wagon, they either wait or they go out in the field and look for somebody that is either still looking or has finished their shopping and get a cart that way when they need it. They bring it back to the sales building after they’ve cut it and our hired help will shake it and bale it. We handle the receipts in the sales building.”
The ultimate goal for the Bauers is to provide other families with an enjoyable experience on the farm.
“We market it as a family activity and a lot of times we’ll have three generations, you know, grandpa and grandma, mom and dad and the kids all come the same time and make a real outing,” Mary said. “We have customers who have videotaped with their cell phones the whole process right from the get-go of starting to hunt for the tree to getting it decorated in their house to post it on Facebook. Social media has been a real boon in the last number of years. Our youngest daughter basically handles all of that and keeping the website updated. That’s her department. And we always appreciate when they’re giving favorable feedback that way. We have been blessed so far with a lot of good feedback from customers.”
After the sales season, tree stumps are removed to get ready for planting the next crop. The labor on the farm is mostly handled by family-members, though FFA connections have paid off with finding hired help. Scott Bauer is the Monroeville FFA adviser, which helps address the challenge of finding reliable seasonal labor.
“It is getting harder to find youth who want to work. Being an ag teacher and involved with these kids and knowing what they do allows us to get some pretty good help, whereas sometimes you’re not able to do that,” Scott said. “During the sales season they help shake, bale and load Christmas trees. Some students who have been around a little longer introduce customers to the farm and talk about the kinds of trees we have. Then I usually have three or four working for me pulling stumps. In the spring when we plant we usually have two or three come help plant.”
The Bauer family gets good help out of the arrangement and the students make some money and get hours for their Supervised Agricultural Experience.
“The students who work for me use it as part of their SAE program. They get dollars and hours towards their State or American degree, whatever they are working on. Most of the students move on after high school when they go on to college. We find the kids and train them and then they move on, but that is the nature of the beast,” Scott said. “It is easier to find good workers in the FFA. I get the chance to screen the candidates before we bring them on. My sister is also a teacher and she finds some really good kids too. Kids with farm backgrounds are predisposed to work well for you.”
The work ethic and family values the FFA students get to learn while working on the farm are at the core of the business for the Bauer family. Whether Bauer family members are working side-by-side beneath the hot summer sun, or bundled up during the winter harvest, they are carrying on a family tradition that allows for traditions of other families to start and grow through generations.
“It has been a family activity for all of us. Now it will help with college for the grandchildren,” Gary said. “You normally don’t have bad people show up to buy trees. If someone’s going to drag their body out to a farm cut their own tree, they’ve got to have some kind of a positive attitude about things. So if you’re going to be in retail — and we all agree around here, retail for five weeks is enough — we really enjoy seeing the families on the farm.”