While most of us tend to think about Christmas trees only around this time of the year, tree farmers must plan years in advance, provide year-round care, and invest time, labor, and love into a crop which takes 7-15 years from planting to harvest. A healthy dose of patience is definitely a job requirement.
According to the New Jersey Christmas Tree Association (NJCTGA), the first retail Christmas tree lot opened in 1851 in New York City, supplied with trees cut from the Catskill Mountains. While these first Christmas trees were harvested from old timber stands, that is not the case with local New Jersey-grown trees. Christmas trees are grown as a non-food crop on tree farms. As a renewable resource, ideally planted on land not suitable for food production, a well-managed sustainable tree farming keeps the land healthy in many ways.
Much like choosing locally-grown produce instead of processed foods, opting for a non-artificial tree for your holiday decor can impact the local environment, local economy, even rural landscapes. Using a real tree can help to keep open land preserved, farmers in business, and promote conservation issues. For their own sake, tree farmers are concerned with the health of soil and water, preventing erosion, and growing a crop that, according to the National Christmas Tree Growers Association, provides a daily output of oxygen, per acre, for eighteen people!
Although not all tree farmers are members of the association, Northwest New Jersey boasts over three dozen tree farms that are associated with NJCTGA, which is dedicated to providing education, information, marketing, and promotion for growers of Christmas trees.
Like all farmers, a Christmas tree grower must first determine the land's potential for growing a bountiful and profitable crop. Soil type and fertility, amounts of daylight, spacing of the trees, temperature and watering requirements, pest issues, labor needs, and weed control must all be noted and addressed.
Andy Alpaugh, a professional forester whose company helps manage private and municipal properties across the region, opened the Evergreen Valley Christmas Tree Farm in 2009. He had worked with his father on a leased farm for many years, and when the lease expired, the Alpaughs purchased these former hay and corn fields along Jackson Valley Road in Washington where they began planting trees in 2003. There are now 65,000 trees in the ground with 10,000 ready at any time for choose and cut. Along with his parents, his wife and children, Alpaugh manages seven species of trees—a crop that includes spruce, pine and four kinds of fir—along with a steady stream of customers from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve.
According to grower John Curtis, who has been growing trees for 45 years, only one NJ farmer grows trees from seed. The rest are purchased as seedlings because the trees are not mature enough to reproduce until they are approximately 20 years old. Thus, most growers plant seedlings that are 1-2 years old, either as bare root plants or plugs.
The seedlings are then placed directly into the field, or put into special beds for several more years. It is easier to provide any needed irrigation to seedlings in temporary beds than in the fields. Plus, seedlings may be less than a foot tall at this early stage, and can be easily damaged in the field. Seedlings nurtured in temporary beds must be replanted permanently in the field several years later. Since transplanting is stressful these trees will again require some TLC later in life.
Farmers employ different planting strategies, depending on circumstances. A field can be replanted after each year's harvest, interspersing mature trees with younger transplants. Or, if a farmer harvests all the trees from one field and replants it simultaneously, then the trees are all roughly the same size and age, and the planting can be done with a machine.
Other issues facing Christmas tree growers include deer damage, pests, pruning needs, and diseases some of which can kill an entire crop of trees. Considering that the average Christmas tree, under ideal conditions, won't be ready for harvest for almost a decade, this can mean a loss of several years' revenue if the farmer has not practiced crop diversity or has not planted regularly. Growing Christmas trees is a labor of love; a lot more demanding than most people expect.
With good management practices numerous varieties planted in the fields and continual replenishment with new seedlings each year. Evergreen Valley has trees of every shape and size. There are even has some that are too large, but they may be suitable for landscape projects.
New Jersey has such a high population density, combined with an influx of customers from NYC, that Christmas tree growers here keep pretty busy. Many offer pre-cut as well as choose-and-cut options. And most offer some type of entertainment. The farms are a destination for many families, and holiday music, hot cocoa, farm animals, Christmas supplies, and wreath sales have come to be expected by the public, and an added source of sales income for the farmer.
Popular tree varieties have traditionally been Scotch Pine and Douglas Fir. Some other trees with customer appeal are the Balsam Firs, which are the "old-fashioned" look tree, and the Concolor Fir, which has a light, citrus scent. The Blue Spruce is noted for its color, and its stiff, prickly needles. This year (2016), a Blue Spruce grown at Evergreen Valley Christmas Tree Farm was selected as Grand Champion of New Jersey. The state’s annual Christmas Tree season opening ceremony was scheduled there for late November.
The demand for spruce, fir, and pines—real Christmas trees—can be met right here in New Jersey's Great Northwest. Within these species, individual varieties provide even more choices differing color, scent, needle shape, texture, needle retention, and branch strength. Choosing that tree at an area farm, amidst holiday trappings and cheer, might just become a family tradition.