By Matt Reese
Some days, Christmas tree farming can be pretty tough.
“You know, it’s the middle of the sales season — it’s busy, you’re constantly moving and we’re in the heart of the Snow Belt and the weather can definitely be a challenge. It can be pretty hard when you’re schlepping through a foot of snow out there working at half the speed you normally could,” said Jeff Grieg, who owns Greig Christmas Tree Farm in Ashtabula County with his brother, Doug. “But it’s a lot of fun and I don’t look at it as work. I grew up with it, so it’s what I do and that makes it really enjoyable. I was out there today and it was a little chilly, but it was a beautiful day. You’re at peace out there doing what you want to do and when you throw in the Christmas element of it in, it makes it a lot of fun.”
So, while there are inevitable challenges, most days as a Christmas tree farmer are pretty good, and 2023 had a few extra of those good days for Greig Christmas Tree Farm. They had a tree selected as the Grand Champion at the Ohio State Fair.
“We’ve been competing at the State Fair regularly since about 2014 and we’ve been fortunate enough to win a few years. We like competing. We like being down there with the other growers and setting up the Ohio Christmas Tree Association State Fair booth. We’ve always thought we grew pretty good trees, so it’s nice to have the judges say, ‘Yeah you got a pretty good tree there’ and have a grand champion banner on the tree,” Jeff said. “It’s a fun process for Doug and myself to be out on the farm looking for the fair tree. We identify trees ahead of time we think could be a good fair tree and once we get close to the fair in late July we start going around the fields and looking at those trees and shearing them up just the way we want them.”
Prior to the 2023 Grand Champion honors, the Greigs hosted fellow Ohio Christmas tree farmers in June on their farm where they highlighted tips and tricks of managing the challenges and maximizing the good days of growing Christmas trees.
“We plant anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 trees year. The timing depends on when we’re getting seedlings and the weather. If we can get on the field in early April and we have the trees we’ll plant then, but we’ve been as late as mid-May because of weather. Definitely the month of April is when we like to get them in the ground,” Jeff said. “We’re planting them 5.5-feet by 5.5-feet. We’ll subsoil the field and roto-till it with a 4-foot roto-tiller on the back of the tractor. Then we’re mostly planting by hand, because everything’s tilled up, they go in pretty easily that way. We can plant between 100 and 150 trees an hour or so.”
The tree seedlings the Greigs plant are plugs +1.5 or plugs +2 purchased from a nursery, which means they were initially grown in small containers at the nursery then transplanted to the field for additional size and root growth before they are sold to and planted on the Greig’s tree farm. Once the trees are planted, zero-turn mowers are used to control weeds around the seedlings before herbicides are used during the second year. Fertilizer is applied in the second year as well.
As they grow, the trees are shorn by the Grieg brothers with long, serrated knives and long-handled clippers to get them full and shaped like State Fair grand champions.
While 2023 had plenty of highlights, it was a difficult growing season for the young trees on the farm.
“We went the month of May with no rain and we did some hand watering. We probably hand watered about 1,200 trees this spring. We did that twice and we thought things were good. Then it started raining and it never stopped raining after it started,” Jeff said. “So, we lost some trees to being too dry and then lost some trees from being too wet. It was challenging and we definitely had a few losses we’ll have to make up this spring with planting a few extra. But, you know, it’s like my dad and I used to talk about. We’d be prepared and think everything was good, but Mother Nature is going to let you know who’s in charge. That’s the same with corn and soybean farmers or Christmas tree farmers. You’ve got to be ready for Mother Nature and she’s going to tell you what she wants to do. That is one of the good and bad points of farming, I guess.”
Jeff and Doug are carrying on the heritage of Christmas tree production on the farm started, in part, by their father.
“In 1956, our dad and uncle started this, and it’s always been a part-time business. They were both engineers for Euclid Road Machinery and Terex, the earth moving equipment companies. There were four high school friends and one of the other guys had the idea of planting Christmas trees and in 7 years you come back and cut them down. The first year they planted 35,000 trees and in the second year they planted 35,000 trees on 160 acres they bought in Ashtabula County,” Doug said. “They were in South Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland, and this was before route 90 was even constructed, so they were going from South Euclid taking the back roads for an hour and a half to get out there. After the first 2 years, the other two guys got out and our dad and uncle were left running it. They figured out pretty quickly what they had to do after that. In the early 60s, as a part time business, they were wholesaling 10,000 trees a year. Good trees cost a dollar; number twos were 50 cents.”
By the late 1960s, though, the business switched to predominantly retail, with the trees grown and harvested on the 300-acre Ashtabula County farm (around 30 acres are in Christmas tree production) and sold from the family home in Lake County.
“The wholesale died down and the retail started to be established. Our parents bought a house in the early 60s in Willoughby Hills with 12 acres, and they just slowly started selling trees retail. The retail picked up and the wholesale died down,” Jeff said. “Today we have 12,000 to 15,000 trees in the ground and, for the most part, Doug and I can do the majority of the work. We have family that helps out too. Doug’s got two boys, I’ve got two kids that help and our wives help. Our mom is still involved, mostly managing the two of us to make sure we’re not spending too much money. We’ve expanded into a few other things. We get orders for bows, we sell greens, we sell roping and wreathes, maple syrup, ornaments, things like that.”
Of course, not all trees grown on the farm can be grand champions, or even fit for sale. The Griegs have developed a unique situation for handling the trees that don’t make the cut.
“Not every Christmas tree is going to make it to market, but just by coincidence we had a call from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and they were looking to see if they could get some Christmas trees from us a couple of years ago. They had some trees in the enclosures for some of the animals there and the animals really liked them, so they wanted to continue with that and we were able to supply them with about a half dozen trees a month for most of the year,” Jeff said. “The trees that they are using are nothing special. They would never make it as a Christmas tree. Most people would never even think about putting it in their house. We’re able to cut those trees and the animals are able to use them in the enclosures. It’s been a nice relationship that we’ve had with them for about 3 years now. We charge them a little for the trees and it helps us out because most of those trees weren’t going to ever be a Christmas tree, so it’s worked out well for us.”
For the trees that do make the cut, they are harvested in Ashtabula County — many of them pre-tagged by customers who make the trip to the farm earlier in the fall to select them — baled up and hauled to the retail location.
“We have an 18-foot landscape trailer that dad and his engineering wonders developed. It has plywood sides and a frame so we can fit 80 to 95 trees total on the trailer. Then we have single-axle trailer that has the same setup and we can get about 30 on that. We throw custom made tarps over top of them. Then dad’s engineering mind developed a rack for the pickup truck and we can get about 30 on the truck, so on a good day we can bring home 150 trees,” Doug said. “That week before Thanksgiving we can run a couple loads. We open Black Friday and we’ll have people lined up on the road waiting to get in. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s going to be busy.”
Then, with some cooperative weather, the years of hard work pay off in a truly enjoyable way.
“We get to be a part of people’s Christmases,” Doug said. “Every time they get up in the morning and go down and see the tree, or go to water the tree, they know it’s a Christmas tree from Greig Christmas Tree Farm. It’s nice to be a part of their family traditions. That’s the biggest thing — we’re an important part of people’s Christmas. So many people come and get a tree from us year after year and we see different generations come in. It really makes it enjoyable making people happy at Christmas, knowing that what we produce does that for them.”