No Bah Humbugs Here: What It's Like to Be a Christmas Tree Farmer
For millions of us--some 33 million, in fact--the Real Christmas Tree Experience is not merely a scene from a heartwarming Hallmark movie or a sappy television commercial. For many families, it is the tradition, the one that builds on a lifetime of memories and joyously creates fresh new ones every year. Rosy-cheeked and bundled-up, we travel over the river and through the Fraser, White Pine, Balsam or Douglas Fir filled woods, tromping in the newly fallen snow until the perfect tree is discovered.
This grand tradition was a long time coming. America's early settlers, the Puritans, were actually banned from using any kind of holiday decoration including evergreens. But a few centuries later, O
Tannenbaum got a big "media" boost from none other than those trendsetters: the Royals. In 1846, the popular Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, appeared in the Pinterest of that era, the
Illustrated London News, standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Queen V was very popular with her subjects, and the Christmas tree became stylish not only in Britain, but with chi-chi
East Coast American Society. Of course, America had to put its own twist on the tree. Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans (still) prefer their Christmas trees
super-sized--to stretch from floor to ceiling.
Last year was a very merry year for the true tannenbaum, and Christmas tree sellers are hopeful that 2014 will be another record year. More real Christmas trees--about 33 million--were sold in 2013 than in any of the previous seven years, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Real Christmas trees are a big business in the U.S., where there are close to 15,000 farms growing Christmas trees in the U.S and retail sales last year surpassed $1 billion. Over 100,000 people are employed full- or part-time in the industry. The average price for one of these green gems is around $35, but much depends on the size and variety of the tree you pick and your location.
Click here to find a real Christmas tree in your neck of the woods.
AOL Jobs spoke with one of the country's premier Christmas tree farmers, Tom Dull of Dull's Tree Farm, about what it's like to be at the heart of this homeland tradition. The Dulls' mid-1800s era Boone County farmstead, located just 40 miles northwest of Indianapolis, overlooks 29 beautiful acres planted with a half-dozen popular varieties of trees.
Back in 1985, Dull and his family decided to branch out from growing corn and soybeans and try their hands at Christmas trees. They planted 200 scotch pines that first year. This was no small feat; nurturing a tree to perfection takes a full seven to eight years of TLC throughout the seasons, from sweltering sun to snow to drought. From 1985 to 1992, they persevered. Today, the Dull Family is not only selling these fresh-cut Christmas trees--they're delivering the whole wondrous Christmas tree experience. These days, that includes wreath-making, a petting zoo, sliding in the snow, s'mores and hot chocolate, a beautifully restored barn, the Stone Cabin Inn hospitality cabin, a thriving gift shop, and on one special Sunday, Newfoundland Dog Pull Day.
During the busy season, the Dulls are proud to be creating jobs for as many as forty members of the community.
"By the time we have cashiers and tree handlers, we're up to 40 people," says Dull." We're happy to be giving some folks in the community a chance to earn a little extra."
But lest you think that Christmas tree farming only happens when the snowflakes fall, Dull sets us straight. "It's kind of a unique industry. It's a good job if you like to work hard. People think you
just sell trees at Christmastime, and that's all you do. In reality, there's something to do all year long. If you're planting soybeans and corn, you plant in the spring and harvest in the fall. If you're
planting Christmas trees, you plant them in the spring--and harvest them seven or eight years later."
In Tom Dull's way of thinking, the real tree farm experience goes beyond Christmas memories. It also gives us a closeup on our back-to-the-earth heritage and the true meaning of "natural."
"I've been involved in agriculture my whole life and it's important for people to understand where their products come from," says Dull. "It's a great opportunity for folks to be able to connect to their agricultural roots."
Another rare aspect of the tree industry is the camaraderie that exists between its members. "We're a really sharing bunch. We don't have any secrets. Our competition is not each other--it's the fake tree."
The number of fake Christmas trees sold each year is estimated at 9.5 million, with 80 percent of this type of product manufactured in China. Despite concerns about the possible metal toxins and non-biodegradable plastics used in their manufacture, $670 million was spent on artificial trees. Tinsel was once loaded with lead, too, and was banned by the government. Now it's made of plastic.
"Can birds nest in a fake tree?" adds Dull.
Giving back: Trees for Troops
The Dulls are strong believers in giving back to the community, whether that community is a stone's throw away or across the globe. Proud participants in a program called Trees for Troops, Dull's Tree Farm is the pickup site for all the trees--200 of them--donated by Indiana tree growers. This year, these trees will be shipped to a Naval Base and Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and to the USO Center in Afghanistan.
Since its launch in 2005 by the National Christmas Tree Association's Spirit Foundation, the Trees for Troops program has donated and delivered 122,000 trees to armed forces members and their families in the U.S. and stationed overseas. FedEx and its devoted volunteers have generously donated their energy and the shipping of these trees, logging more than 419,862 miles to bring the real Christmas tree experience to those who protect and defend us.
This year, one of Tom's tree recipients is U.S. Army Sergeant Mark Schaefer, who is currently serving in Afghanistan. Back home, Mark's family, his wife and two young children, will also
receive a special tree delivery through the program at their home in Fort Hood, Texas.
"It's a great honor for us to participate in this program," says Dull, speaking of the heartwarming day when a young man introduced himself in church, asking to shake his hand. The man had been stationed in Afghanistan when a big box was delivered to the base. His C.O. chose him to open the surprise package. "He opened the box and the aroma, the fresh, green scent--well, he said it was just like home. A piece of home right there on the other side of the world. He shook my hand and said thank you."
Going to the dogs
The Dulls officially let their farm go to the dogs every first Sunday in December. That's when a team of Newfoundlands arrive for Dog Pull Day. The Dull Farm was the first farm in the nation to launch this unique kind of benefit for the local Newfoundland Club. These sweet gentle giants--Newfies--pull the trees from the field, earning donations for Newfoundland rescue--and even more "awwws" and pats.
No Bah Humbugs This Year
"I've spoken with fellow farmers in Indiana and they've been having a banner year," says Dull. "As for us, we are well ahead of last year's total numbers sold, and we still have two-and-a-half weeks to go until Christmas."
Dull is heartened by the number of new people coming to the farm. "People are putting away their iPads and building tradition and making memories. We're getting people saying, 'Hey, my mom and dad came here.' That makes all the hard work worthwhile."
- Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states including Hawaii and Alaska.
- California, Oregon, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina are the top Christmas tree producing states.
- The best selling trees are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir, and White Pine.
- 98 percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farms.
- More than 1,000,000 acres of land have been planted with Christmas trees.
- 77 million Christmas trees are planted each year.
- You should never burn your Christmas tree in the fireplace. It can contribute to creosote buildup.
- Other types of trees such as cherry and hawthorns were used as Christmas trees in the past.
- Thomas Edison's assistants came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees.