For teenagers and their families who celebrate Christmas, finding and decorating the perfect tree is often a highlight of the season. Rarely do people realize how much work and time goes into growing each tree.
All my life I've been involved in my family's agritourism-based farm business in Akron. Agritourism is is a business that enable people from urban areas to enjoy a small piece of farm life. For the past 19 years, my family has offered services that include school field trips, private parties and U-pick pumpkins.
Five years ago, my family began to plant Christmas trees as a major addition to our business. At that time, I began to learn about all the work it takes to grow Christmas trees -- work that is so often taken for granted.
The trees that we grow start as seeds in greenhouses or nurseries. Transplants, or young trees from the nurseries, are purchased to be planted in the fields. Planting usually takes place in April, when there is no threat of a frost or dry summer heat. Holes must be dug deep enough to fit the transplants' roots, and far apart enough to allow room for the trees to grow. Once the holes have been dug, each seedling is planted by hand. This is one of the most important steps in tree-growing. The roots should all point downward; any bent roots increase the tree's chance of dying due to lack of water and nutrients. In addition, the depth each transplant is planted at must be taken into account. If planted too deep, the transplants might not get enough sunlight; not deep enough, you run the risk of drying out the roots.
I started out doing jobs such as placing seedlings in holes or watering the trees. These simple jobs were just enough for me when I was younger, and kept the planting running smoothly. Between then and now I have "upgraded" to actually planting the trees! I have learned to be responsible and take my time. All the work with planting has to be done in just one weekend, so the transplants do not die. For me, that means not hanging out with friends and sometimes bearing the rain and mud April often brings. Though planting is far from a time-of-your-life experience, I admit it isn't all that bad.
When you're planting, all you really think about is how many more there are to go. But afterward, it really is rewarding. For me, I know I'm helping the earth and my family. Although sometimes my family and I get on each other's nerves, we definitely have some laughs.
Over the past five years my family has planted 4,000 trees: each one planted by hand, with care, while making memories along the way.
After planting is over, the work does not end. Some farms use sprays to ward off insects and weeds; others use organic methods -- either way is time- and money-consuming. Grass between the young trees must be cut regularly, and weeds must be pulled to protect the trees.
Our first year, my dad (Andy) bought spray to keep down the weeds around that cherished, first field of trees. For fear of the spray killing the trees, my three siblings (Laura, Andrew, Jacob) and I had to place orange cones over every single tree while my dad sprayed them. Lo' and behold, we found out shortly after spraying had been finished that the spray was not harmful to the transplants. It was a mistake we would learn from, and definitely offered plenty of bonding time -- if not too much!
One of the biggest pest problems for tree growers is deer, who enjoy the taste of young trees. Some farms put up fences to keep deer out; there have been farms known to use fences in other ways, including one farm that uses fences to keep a band of coyotes in the tree field. These coyotes frighten away threatening deer and do no harm to the trees.
As transplants grow into full-sized trees, a lot of effort is put into achieving the perfect cone-shaped Christmas tree. When the trees are about one foot tall, the bottom branches must be clipped off. This ensures that the tree will have a trunk. As needed, the leader (the point of the Christmas tree -- where the star is placed) of each tree is trimmed, keeping each leader below 12 inches of length. Unruly branches are trimmed and are triangularly shaped with a machetelike tool called a shearing knife. This is usually done in June; new growth is easiest to cut through, and the tree will re-bud, which adds fullness.
Currently, we sell pre-cut trees and fresh wreaths. The trees are not grown here on the farm; we have them shipped in, in order to establish a customer-base for future years.
I would say, of the whole family, that my dad is probably the most enthusiastic about the trees. He puts in long hours toward the young trees, ensuring they will someday be the glory of someone's home. Mom (Marilyn) is equally devoted. She makes beautiful wreaths and centerpieces to sell.
I'll be honest, when the idea of growing Christmas trees was first brought up, I saw it as another task; another opportunity for the public to be welcomed into our home. But over the years, I have come to share a part of my parents' fervor. Doing something you enjoy makes the work easier, and sharing it with someone equally as enthusiastic makes it worthwhile.
Though enthusiasm lessens the burden of Christmas-tree farming, many hours are put in all the same. Some may be wondering why so much work is put into growing trees, when one can simply buy an artificial tree from the store. A common misconception is that artificial trees are more eco-friendly than cutting down a real tree. However, most Christmas trees are grown in tree farms, not forests. In order to stay in business, farmers replant thousands of transplants each year to provide for future Christmas seasons. Being that most trees are sold when they are about 8 years old, by the time they are cut they have supplied years' worth of oxygen and removed carbon from the atmosphere. Most artificial trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a nonrenewable petroleum-based plastic. Some artificial trees have warnings about high lead content, which has been used to give the fake branches the desired texture. After artificial trees have had their years worth of use (usually six to 10 years), they are thrown away and dumped into landfills with no hope of biodegrading.
Also, by purchasing real trees you are supporting a local U.S. farmer. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, 80 percent of artificial trees sold worldwide come from factories in China.
Another common belief is that artificial trees are more flame resistant than live trees. When properly cared for, both have the same chance of catching fire. By using proper care with lighting, heat, etc., Christmas tree fires should not pose a problem.
Hard work put into growing each tree is well worth the environmental benefits and holiday cheer offered by a fresh pine in the family room.
My family's goal (hopefully to be met in about three years) is to operate a U-cut Christmas tree farm. We hope to offer horse-drawn sleigh rides to the tree field, along with some pre-cut trees and fresh wreaths; an operation almost mirror-image to that of our U-pick pumpkins. For me, this translates to having my backyard open to the public for almost 12 straight weekends. I must admit, sometimes having my personal space filled with an eager public can be inconvenient; finding a place for alone time or a quiet walk can be difficult. However, for the most part, it is a good experience. I get to meet so many new people and learn life skills -- from public speaking to responsibility. I learn a lot about just how diverse people are, but at the same time how much we all have similar feelings, hopes and dreams.
It really is touching to see a tiny baby have his first pony ride, a disabled person interact with the animals, or families enjoying the simple pleasure of being together -- and that makes it worth every minute.
With the Christmas spirit picking up, families have begun to make the trek for their annual "tree hunt." This year, be sure to pick out a beautiful tree, and remember all the work that went into making the trees available.
For more information on Christmas trees or tree recycling programs, visit the National Christmas Tree Association website at www.christmastree.org.
Catherine Kelkenberg is a sophomore at Akron High School.