Tree Farms

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(HOST) Commentator Vern Grubinger reflects on the life of a Vermont Tree farmer after the Christmas Tree rush is over.

(GRUBINGER) All is quiet now at Elysian Hills Tree Farm in Dummerston, where Bill and Mary Lou Schmidt have grown Christmas trees for 26 years. Come January, they’ve earned some down time, after working non-stop since October.

Soon enough, they’ll be back to work, because tree farming is a year-round occupation. Their 100 acres provide a diversity of products, all requiring different kinds of management.

In the sugarbush, 600 maple trees are tapped in late winter. The woodlot is managed with thinning practices to encourage the long-term health of maple, red oak, birch and white pine. Recreational trails are maintained for the benefit of the local community and wildlife habitats are created, like small patch clear-cuts for grouse. Attempts to control invasive plants like buckthorn, barberry and honeysuckle are ongoing.

Then, there are Christmas trees – 20 thousand of them, on 20 acres. Balsam fir, white spruce, white pine, Scotch pine and blue spruce. All are sheared, shaped and mowed around every year. It takes a four-year-old transplant six to eight years to get big enough to be harvested for a few weeks of glory. Then, it has to be replaced. The Schmidts plant 1500 new Christmas trees every spring.

In summer and fall, tourists visit the farm and flag the trees of their choice. Just before the holidays, these are cut, boxed and shipped to their homes. Other people order trees over the Internet, from as far away as Florida and Utah.

Local folks come to the farm on October weekends to tag trees that’ll be ready for them to pick up in December. It’s a lovely outing, driving up the stonewalled country road enveloped in foliage to walk the rolling hills and look ahead to winter and the holiday season.

Although ancient Egyptians, Romans and Chinese used evergreens to mark the winter solstice, the modern Christmas tree custom appears to have originated in 16th century Germany. Small fir trees were decorated with apples, nuts and other items as part of the holiday celebration.

In America, one of the earliest records of Christmas trees is from 1747, among German immigrants in Pennsylvania. In 1825, the Saturday Evening Post reported on decorated trees in Philadelphia. A couple of decades later, Franklin Pierce put the first tree in the White House. In 1851, a farmer from upstate New York brought a load of evergreens from the Catskills to Manhattan and set up one of the first street corner Christmas tree lots. By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree.

Today, Americans buy 25 million trees each December. In Vermont, Christmas trees bring in an estimated 10 million dollars, and that helps 200 commercial producers to sustain our working landscape.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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