It’s a scene straight out of a holiday movie: A family travels to an idyllic farm to cut down their own Christmas tree and spends the day walking the rows, making wreaths and sipping hot cocoa. At some of the 15,000 Christmas tree farms across the United States, this picture-perfect scene isn’t fiction. Many farmers forgo the wholesale market by welcoming visitors to purchase fresh trees—one of some 25 million sold in the U.S. every year. Let’s take a closer look into how Christmas tree farms work by speaking to the families who run them.
How do Christmas tree farms work?
Although the farms do much of their business from the day after Thanksgiving through early December, Christmas tree growing is a year-round profession. “I get asked what I do the rest of the year,” says Christian Nicholson, owner of Hidden Pond Tree Farm and president of the New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers Association. “There is no rest of the year; it never stops.”
As soon as the ground thaws in spring, seedlings go in the ground by the thousand. Geographic location, soil and weather conditions and what customers want determine the crops growers plant. Increasingly, the effects of climate change affect their calculations; more extreme conditions make crop choice a moving target.
Throughout the spring and summer, farmers then plant cover crops, spray for pests and fertilize. Come high summer, around July, farmers are in the fields pruning trees by hand to shape the conifers into the perfect Christmas-tree form. Throughout the year, the farmers mow to keep paths and trails clear enough for visitors to traverse. The majestic firs and spruces spend eight to 10 years being tended to before they’re ready to be cut as the typical 6-foot Christmas tree.
Farmers attract families to their farms not only for one of the iconic symbols of the season, but also to create old-fashioned memories. The nostalgic feel keeps guests coming back year after year and across generations. Behind the scenes, farmers use hard work and diversification to keep their businesses—and way of life—alive.
Piper Mountain Christmas Tree Farm
Piper Mountain Christmas Tree Farm owners Molly and Jesse Jimerson took over their parcel in 2022, but the farm has roots dating back to 1978, when now-retired Jim and Norma Corliss founded it.
“It looked like a Hallmark movie. It’s a dream business,” Molly recalls of their new venture, which was a perfect fit for her agricultural background and her husband’s make-or-fix-anything spirit. “We loved the idea of farming Christmas trees and giving our children that lifestyle.”
The Jimersons grow some 28,000 trees and plant between 3,000 and 4,000 primarily balsam firs each year. Tending the crop is a year-round affair. “We’re a working farm 11 months out of the year and an agritourism [farm] one month out of the year,” Molly says.
“It always feels like Easter was yesterday, and it’s Christmas tomorrow,” Jesse adds.
The Jimersons market farm visits to women, who often plan activities and make financial decisions for their families. “People can go to Home Depot, grab a Christmas tree and be done. [Women] like to make a day of it with their families,” Molly says. At Piper Mountain, the Jimersons create a full-day experience with horse-drawn carriage rides, food trucks and ornament shopping.
Although the couple wake up to the magic of a Christmas tree farm year-round, Molly recalls the enticing aroma of the barn as the wreath-making materials started to roll in during her family’s first season on the farm. “Tippers” harvest the branches in the wild—around 30,000 pounds of them—for the farm’s wholesale wreath business, which is another aspect of its diverse operations that includes an e-commerce sector.
Pioneer Trails Tree Farm
Farming runs in the Perdulla family. Patriarch Frank grew up on the 52-acre parcel where he and wife Mary Jan, who hails from a line of Christmas tree farmers, planted their first trees in 1983. Forty years later, the couple is celebrating their ruby anniversary at the farm. They count their three children as part of the operation, two of them as co-operators, and they oversee a crop that includes a variety of firs, spruces and pines.
The Pioneer Trails Tree Farm acreage creates a picturesque setting that serves as a backdrop for photographers who rent space to capture holiday photos. The Perdullas have even created photography sets, such as an old-fashioned wagon and a hot chocolate stand, to add to the ambiance. The photographer rental fees create another of the farm’s revenue streams, which include primitive tent camping spots added during the COVID-19 pandemic when outdoor recreation space was at a premium. They also saw a Christmas season visitation boom during the pandemic when socially distanced activities were in demand.
Holiday farm outings include a flat-rate tree (visitors can cut their own tree or select a pre-cut one), wagon rides and a trip to the Big Red Barn gift shop for handmade ornaments, hot chocolate and doughnuts. To appeal to families with activity-packed schedules, the farm opens a couple evenings for Friday Night Lights, when guests can select their trees under solar lights, enjoy a ride from a holiday-light bedecked wagon and gather around bonfires for s’mores and hot dogs.
Mary Jan says she’s gratified they’re continuing family traditions. “I’m glad that we can continue operating as a Christmas tree farm. As [my kids] have grown up, so many [tree farms] have shut down. I have two grandchildren, and hopefully someday they’ll be interested in continuing it too,” she says.
Hidden Pond Tree Farm
Mendham, New Jersey
Christian Nicholson started Hidden Pond Tree Farm by leasing 35 acres of land and selling his first tree in 2008. The farm has since grown into an idyllic setting—at least the filmmakers at Netflix and Hallmark think so. They’ve filmed several holiday films on the property.
Nicholson says it’s fulfilling for him to welcome the public to the farm. “I could sell wholesale and be done in a weekend,” he says. “It’s a lot more fun to greet the same families every year. I’ve watched customers’ families grow up and have children of their own.”
The farm draws families from as far as New York City’s boroughs. “Families want more than a Christmas tree. It’s such an old-fashioned, simple tradition. I sell an experience as much as a tree; I sell the spirit of Christmas,” Nicholson says. Hayrides, tractor-drawn train rides, bonfires and a snack bar create a full-day experience for folks cutting their own Canaan fir, Fraser fir or concolor fir. (Nicholson also offers pre-cut trees.)
To bolster income the other 11 months of the year, Nicholson welcomes photographers to the farm for sessions—capturing Christmas card photos is also a hit here—and operates a wholesale boxwood business. “To make a farm work, you have to find an alternate source of income. There are very few farms that can make it work with only one commodity,” he says.
Covered Bridge Ranch
Natalie Riessen grew up a tree farmer’s daughter in Michigan. After a career in finance in Chicago and New York, she joined her father’s Colorado operation 12 years ago. “I was always in the corporate world, and I was looking to do something more entrepreneurial. I wanted something that I could take over at some point and continue to the next generation,” she says.
Her father’s travels introduced him to often-romanticized covered bridges and U-cut Christmas tree farms, both of which he incorporated into his Centennial State operation before Riessen joined. She says the setting and activity have multi-generational appeal. “It’s one of the rare things in life that you can do with many generations together; grandparents, children and grandchildren can all participate in doing something together. It supports what Christmas is all about,” she says.
Covered Bridge Ranch transports visitors into the fields on tractor-drawn wagons to cut Canaan firs, Douglas firs, concolor firs, Colorado spruces or Scotch pines. After they find the perfect conifer, visitors can pop into the wreath-decorating barn, enjoy hot cider, visit the variety of animals on-site and browse the gift shop.
The farm only devotes 100 acres of the 300-acre parcel to Christmas trees. It has several other revenue streams. “We’re primarily a tree nursery,” Riessen says of their business Colorado Conifers, which grows trees for the wholesale and nursery market. The farm also operates a pumpkin patch, grows hay and raises longhorn cattle.
After her corporate career, Riessen now finds fulfillment in days mostly spent outdoors. “Growing things is pretty rewarding. It’s rewarding to see the things we grow develop and become more beautiful with the work that we put into them.”
Photo courtesy of Piper Mountain Christmas Tree Farm.
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