Small Farm Equals Quality Christmas Trees

12/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

AUBURN, Pa. — They say good things come in small packages.

For the Shealer family of Schuylkill County, good things have been coming from their small farm, Evergreen Acres Christmas Tree Farm, since the mid-1940s.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Paul Shealer, third-generation grower, whose father and grandfather started the business almost by accident right around the end of World War II.

At 75 acres, the farm, located within the rolling hills of southeastern Schuylkill County, is small compared with other Christmas tree farms in Pennsylvania, which is one of the top states in the nation for Christmas tree production.

But just because the farm is small doesn’t mean the Shealers can’t put out a product that can compete with the big boys.

“It’s the small grower that pays attention to detail and that’s putting a high-quality tree on the market,” Shealer said.

Even though his family bought the 45-acre home farm in the mid-1930s, nobody had plans of growing and selling Christmas trees to make money.

But the family was struggling and after Shealer’s father got discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1945, he and his father, Shealer’s grandfather, thought of cutting and selling a couple of Norway spruce trees that were planted on the farm years earlier by the state for conservation purposes.

The two cut the trees and, using a rope, dragged them across a creek than ran through the farm. They put up a sign, offering to sell the trees for 25 cents. What they didn’t expect was all the trees selling out.

The two started planting Christmas trees each year, and the business slowly grew.

“My father and grandfather ran the business mostly like a hobby farm,” Shealer said.

After Shealer graduated from Penn State in 1977, he started taking on a bigger role in the business.

His grandfather died in 1983, and after his father died in 1989, Shealer took over the business and changed many practices to expand it into a full-time venture while he continued working as an Extension educator.

Even though Douglas fir trees had been grown on the farm since the late 1950s, he increased their numbers and phased out the Norway spruce and Scottish pine trees.

“We wanted a tree that would have tremendous needle retention. The consumer demand really resulted in the bigger switch,” he said.

As it turns out, Douglas firs also did well in the area.

“Believe it or not, the climate here is identical to the climate of northern New Mexico, where the Douglas fir tree originates. The climate is just right,” he said.

He also changed growing practices, planting more trees to the acre, using more herbicides, shearing trees when needed throughout the year and mowing between rows to control weeds and insects.

It can take between eight and 10 years for a Christmas tree to reach maturity, but a lot of work has to be done each year to maintain it.

About 1,200 trees are planted to the acre, with 6 feet between each tree. Planting them too close, Shealer said, can create disease and insect issues along with needle cast diseases.

He estimates he plants close to 10,000 seedlings a year and harvests between 2,000 and 5,000 trees.

Douglas firs are still the predominant trees on the farm. If there is one drawback to them, it’s the fact that their branches can’t handle the weight of a lot of ornaments.

Over the years, Shealer has started growing more Fraser firs, a variety native to the southern Appalachians that no longer grows well in its natural habitat due to disease and insect pressures.

The only Fraser seeds available now, he said, come from growers that have collected seeds over the years.

But the Fraser has become popular with his customers. It’s a stiffer tree, with the ability to handle more ornaments and other things people like to put on Christmas trees.

Fraser firs can be difficult to grow, though. The trees don’t like the heat and dry conditions of summer, and as a result, Shealer and his family have had to invest upward of $15,000 to install trickle irrigation to maintain the plantings.

“It has cut down on mortality because they don’t like the heat,” he said.

Shealer also prefers growing the trees on north-facing slopes.

“I match the tree to the site. I think that’s very important,” he said.

Over the past five years, Shealer has started looking at other more exotic tree varieties to grow.

“I’m looking for a new plant to sell to consumers because in the Christmas tree business, we haven’t had something new in a long time,” he said.

Turkish fir, Serbian spruce and Korean fir are among the varieties he’s toyed with.

Turkish firs, he said, look especially promising since they have good needle retention and tend to handle heat and dry conditions.

But their buds break out early in the spring, which can be a problem, especially when the weather gets warm early, because a later cold spell can damage them.

Most trees from the farm get sold wholesale — only 10 percent are sold retail. The first two weekends in December are the busiest and, according to Sharon, Shealer’s wife, most business comes from word of mouth.

The farm has earned a reputation for growing good trees. The family’s home is adorned with various plaques and blue ribbons from competitions over the years.

In 2000, the family won the National Christmas Tree Association growing contest, allowing it to donate an 18-foot Douglas fir to the White House.

The family was the runner-up in the 2006 contest and donated a tree to then Vice President Dick Cheney for his personal residence.

Shealer still keeps a block of trees for future contests, just in case the farm gets the chance to donate another tree to the president.

“I’ve been planning on it all along. Our wholesale customers say if it’s good enough for the White House, it’s good enough for our house,” he said.

Sharon does a lot of work alongside Shealer. She recently retired from a job as a school guidance counselor to focus on the business and is in charge of the small retail store on the farm..

Shealer retired a couple of years ago from Penn State Extension, where he spent 28 years as a county educator.

Their children, Paul Anthony and Briana, also spend time helping out on the farm. Paul Anthony has planted his own trees and will likely be the next family member to take over the business.

Christmas tree growing is a high-risk business, Shealer said, and many growers are starting to get older with few younger people coming in to take their place.

“The biggest challenge in the industry right now is gray hair. Not very many young people want to get involved in this much work,” he said.

But the tradition of buying a Christmas tree for the holidays won’t die out anytime soon. In fact, Shealer sees more and more people wanting to get a “real” Christmas tree as a way to reconnect with family traditions.

“The future is bright for anyone wanting to get into it,” he said.

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