Work Slows, But Never Stops On Tree Farm

1/4/2014 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

MOREAU, N.Y. — Santa has come and gone along with hundreds of visitors in search of fresh-cut trees in the weeks before Christmas.

For Todd Kusnierz, the work slows down, but never stops.

Running a tree farm is a year-round business as Kusnierz, co-owner of Candy Cane Farm, learned decades ago.

“We take a week off between Christmas and New Year’s,” he said. “Things grind to a halt on the farm. It’s nice to have a little peace and quiet.”

But he’s already looking forward to spring, getting ready to order new seedlings that will replace the nearly 1,000 recently harvested trees. It’s a good time to assess the farm’s needs, decide what varieties of trees to buy, which fields to expand, and take an inventory of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Planning definitely makes a difference.

“This was a great year for us,” Kusnierz said. “We had a lot of new customers. More and more people are looking for natural trees. Obviously that helps business.”

The farm also sells trees in spring for landscape purposes, which complements the Christmas business and accounts for about 15 percent of overall sales. So winter is also a good time to check and maintain equipment such as a tree spader that digs trees out in large root balls for landscape customers.

At this time of year, Kusnierz can also pay more attention to the farm’s 56 head of Angus cattle, most of which are raised for breeding instead of meat.

With years of experience, the family-run business is a finely-tuned operation. Adhering to the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Kusnierz isn’t planning any major changes in the year ahead.

“We probably won’t be doing a whole lot different because it’s worked well for us,” he said.

Kusnierz owns the farm with his wife, Mary Ellen, and his parents, Ted and Anne Kusnierz, who planted the first trees in 1961 and began selling them several years later, primarily on a wholesale basis.

But as word spread and demand increased locally for cut-your-own trees, the business shifted entirely to retail, which made both sense and “cents” because retail generates more income.

Through the years, fir varieties such as Douglas, Fraser and Canaan have become most popular. In the past two years alone, the farm planted 7,000 seedlings including blue spruce, too.

However, many people still like soft-needle pines.

“We like to offer a good variety,” Todd Kusnierz said. “We stay with pines because they’re faster growing and soil conditions here are right for them. It’s well-drained sandy loam.”

Pines are ready to harvest after seven years, a quicker return on investment versus firs, which take 10 years. Plus, they’re less susceptible to deer damage, one of the many year-round challenges faced by all Christmas tree growers.

“People think you just stick them in the ground, come back a few years later and sell them,” Todd Kusnierz, 51, said smiling.

For as long as he can remember, summers meant long hours in the fields — trimming and shaping trees, mowing to keep weeds down and spraying to protect against insects and disease — jobs he shared with his parents and five sisters.

“But it’s exciting when people start showing up,” he said.

This year, once again, people began coming in droves shortly before Thanksgiving. The 155-acre site in northern Saratoga County offers stunning views to the east across rural countryside, all the way to Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Moreau, where the farm is located, is almost equidistant from much larger Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls. To the north, there are few other farms to compete with, giving Candy Cane an ideal location to do business.

Visitors come to buy trees, but what they’re really after is an experience.

“It’s something we enjoy doing as a family,” said Lance Freebern of nearby Hudson Falls, N.Y. “We’ve done it our whole lives. We’ve never had an artificial tree.”

Kusnierz, a Moreau Town Board member, is also chief of staff for state Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-St. Lawrence County, and is director of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which Ritchie chairs. Days spent at the state capitol in Albany are followed by nights and weekends on the farm.

Candy Cane Farm is one of the roughly 850 Christmas tree farms in New York, the nation’s sixth largest producer of Christmas trees. The operation has more than 15,000 trees in various stages of growth, giving area residents a source of happy memories for many Christmases to come.

“In this day and age, families don’t do a lot together,” Kusnierz said. “This is still something they will do.”

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