11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor
ANNVILLE, Pa. — “Sixty-five acres of trees and counting” could be the motto for Rodney and Jodi Wert, owners of the rolling hills and rural acreage of Blue Ridge Christmas Tree Farm in Annville, Pa.
Of the 132 acres on their current farm, all the land suitable for Christmas trees has been planted and they are looking for ways to expand since their recently married son, Tyler, 23, has moved home with his wife, Melanie, and joined the business.
To expand, the family is considering planting additional land elsewhere as well as adding more agritourism elements such as a pick-your-own pumpkin patch, decorative Indian corn and a kids’ playground to bring in additional customers in the fall season. Rodney also grows corn, soybeans and hay on 50 remaining acres of their farm.
“We want to make room for him (Tyler) in the farm business,” Rodney said.
The Werts already work in another multigenerational family business — bookbinding —which was started by Rodney’s father and mother in 1963, and employs his brothers and other family members as well. However, with the recent rise of so-called electronic books, Rodney is especially interested in developing a broader business base at the tree farm.
“Who knows what will happen?” he said of the bookbinding industry. “Kindles are killing the book business.”
The Werts are not newcomers to tree farming. Rodney, 59, grew up on a farm and has developed several farm ventures since then. He is well-versed in the business of growing and selling Christmas trees, having started more than 25 years ago on their 76-acre farm in Linglestown, Pa., when they decided in 1986 to plant their first 13,000 trees.
The business developed and grew over the years. Since Christmas trees take anywhere from 8-14 years to grow to Christmas-tree size, in 1992 the couple opened a tree sales lot called Christmas Tree Corner, along busy Route 22, buying in trees from elsewhere so they could develop a customer base by the time their own trees were ready to harvest. For the next four years, they grew the holiday tree lot until sales totaled 1,000 trees annually. When their own trees were ready, the family then moved the tree sales from the lot onto their farm in Linglestown. Business was good, over the years growing to sales of nearly 4,000 holiday cut trees and 600 live evergreens per year. A gift shop and holiday decorations brought in additional income.
Though new housing developments around the Linglestown farm brought in new tree customers, eventually the developments began encroaching too close to the farm where they had lived for 21 years.
“It became too populated, and new developments were coming in,” Rodney said.
In 2004 they sold the farm, but were able to retain access to 15-20 acres of their Christmas trees still growing on the property.
They brought their business name along to the current farm in Annville — Blue Ridge Christmas Tree Farm — and have brought many of their former customers along as well. They formally opened their Christmas tree retail operation in Annville in 2008. They also sell about 1,500 trees wholesale from the Annville farm each year.
Throughout the year, there’s always work to be done on the tree farm, except for possibly during the months of January and February. There’s planting and trimming, mowing and spraying. And, of course, there’s the rush of sales in November and December when neighboring college kids often help out at the store and farm.
“It’s a lot of work to start over at this farm,” Rodney said. “There’s always something that needs to be done. A lot goes into growing Christmas trees.”
Despite that sentiment, Jodi noted that Rodney is very organized and always an optimist.
That optimism will be conveyed to other growers next July, when, for the first time, the farm will host the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association meeting.
Although both of their home-schooled children worked on the tree farm growing up, it is Tyler who has returned to the farm. Tyler and his wife plan to live in the renovated farmhouse on the property, while Rodney and Jodi have drawn up plans to build a new home centrally located on the farm. According to Jodi, the older farmhouse even has the unique distinction of being located at Loch No. 21 (the Lafayette Loch) of the Union Canal, which diverted water from Swatara Creek to form a canal that connected the Schuylkill River to the Susquehanna River.
With his many years of experience, Rodney has learned a thing or two about the tree business.
“You must sell a good product to be profitable,” Rodney said. “These (trees) aren’t like ag crops. You have to know 8 to 10 years ahead of time what’s going to sell.”
“Douglas firs are the number one seller,” Rodney said. “Frasier firs are second.”
But, he said, Douglas firs have lots of disease issues and he’s thinking of getting out of those.
Some tree growers are experimenting with exotic trees like Korean firs, Turkish firs, and Nordmann firs. The Werts are bringing some of those in, and said they’re good trees, but it can be hard to “finish off the top” on those trees, an important quality when shaping a Christmas tree.
Marketing is mostly word of mouth, along with advertising in the local papers. Tyler is launching their business onto Facebook this year.
“We all wear a lot of hats around here,” Rodney said about Tyler’s work. “And, Jodi does it all too.”
Customers like a fresh farm tree. “Ninety percent of customers want to go and cut their own tree, Rodney said. “Just 10 percent want a pre-cut tree.”
“ Choose and cut’ is a trend in the industry. It’s becoming very popular,” Rodney said. “People like that the trees are so fresh.” At a tree lot, he said, customers don’t know when the tree was cut — it may have cut weeks earlier or shipped in from a long distance away.
Rodney admitted that it can be tough when there are a lot of small growers who “seem to do it for fun” and practically give the trees away for a lower price. But he said a lot of growers do have other jobs.
And the farm has stopped digging live trees for sale to the landscape industry.
“I have lots of equipment to dig live trees, but it became too competitive,” said Rodney, who has a license for digging live trees. He had to recently push down nearly 1,000 trees that had grown too large to be sold live.
Deer rubbing on the trees is a problem.
“We used to take out the trees that the deer rubbed, but now we leave them there,” Jodi said. “The deer like to come back to the same tree and it keeps them from damaging new ones.”
Rodney sprays the trees to keep the deer away — one spray emits a scent like rotten eggs as well as a taste repellent to repulse the deer.
He sprays for insects but tries to spray for specific ones only, rather than use an overall insecticide such as Sevin. They are pleased when praying mantises are found around the trees.
At this time of year, Jodi becomes busy setting up a large Christmas gift shop at the farm since the season opens Thanksgiving week. The couple collects holiday antiques for display such as sleighs and sleds, toys, Santas and nativity scenes. The sleds are redecorated with greenery and holiday ribbons for resale. Greenery is made available to Blue Ridge tree customers for a donation to a red Salvation Army kettle hanging near the door of the retail area. The Werts match any funds in the kettle and give it all to the Salvation Army.
The Werts enjoy growing Christmas trees and are looking to expand, and Rodney said he’s hoping to get up to selling 5,000 trees a year down the road.
With their adaptability, combined energies and positive attitude toward the future, the Wert family farm is sure to find many more loyal customers.