Wednesday, October 8, 2008
By Meghan McCarthy McPhaul
Gordon and Carolyn Page grow Christmas trees on about 4½ acres on their Strafford property. With 10 acres in current use, including the Christmas trees, the other space is occupied by large vegetable and flower gardens and several fruit trees.
“We’re situated at the edge of the Blue Hills area. We’re up at an elevation of 860-plus feet,” Gordon says. “We’re kind of a microclimate.”
Gordon, a civil engineer who retired 16 years ago from the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, and Carolyn, a retired educator, got into Christmas tree farming as “a retirement project.” They planted their first trees in 1989 and have been selling trees since the mid-1990s.
They harvest about 400 cut-your-own Christmas trees each year.
We caught up with Gordon June 5 to talk about his retirement project. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Where did you get the idea to start a Christmas tree farm?
My wife has sister-in-law in New Jersey that did it, and we had this land. About 3 acres was in woods. The rest was a former pasture for a horse farm. It’s real flat. The land wasn’t being used for anything, so I thought this would be a fun project.
What kinds of trees do you grow?
I’ve planted quite a few varieties: Fraser fir and balsam, Canaan fir (a balsam that’s native to West Virginia). I’ve got 650 Korean firs now.
How do you decide what kinds of trees to plant?
I’ve had problems the last couple years with root rot with Fraser firs. That’s why the last couple of years I’ve switched to the Canaans and the Korean firs, which are supposed to be resistant. I have a real heavy soil here, and the Canaans do well in heavy soil.
How did you learn about tree farming?
I became active in the marketing committee for the New Hampshire-Vermont Christmas Tree Association. And I picked everybody’s brains every time I’d go to a meeting. I actually made quite a few mistakes in the beginning. The first trees I planted were white spruce, which I found out most people don’t like. I planted about 1,000 of those. Then I planted Scotch pine, which people also don’t like. I finally got to balsam and Fraser firs. We’ve put up an electric fence – the first 500 balsams I planted, the deer devastated them.
Do you have a hired staff?
It’s mainly my wife and me. The last two years we had a friend from Sacramento, California, fly out to help us. He thinks it’s great to be in the tree business at Christmas time. Generally we have one teenager helping us during the selling season.
When does your busy selling season start?
People start coming to tag trees Columbus Day weekend. We start selling Thanksgiving weekend. Carolyn makes a couple hundred wreaths and decorates them to sell. She starts about November 1st making wreaths. You’re supposed to wait until after the second frost to start cutting brush.
Have you been happy in your retirement project?
Yeah. It’s small enough so that if I want to take off and go fishing or something I can do it. There’s nothing to do in January, February and March. It’s about mid-April when you get busy. Last year we went to New Zealand for three weeks in January. We’ve done a lot of shorter trips in the summer.
What’s your favorite part about raising Christmas trees?
I like to be outdoors. That’s one of the reasons I took up civil engineering, but I found myself in an office most of the time. Seeing the people each year. Most of our customers are pretty loyal, they keep coming back. And seeing their kids grow up.
What is something that you don’t enjoy as much?
All the mowing. I try to keep the grass mowed between the trees. That keeps me busy in the summer. There’s the shearing in the spring. But I don’t really mind those things.
What is something the average Christmas tree buyer might not realize about growing trees?
I suppose that they don’t think about that the trees are giving off oxygen. And they preserve the land, which is very important, especially in southern New Hampshire.
What do you do besides raise Christmas trees?
I hunt. Both of us are involved in the Bear-Paw Regional Greenways (a regional land trust). It started out trying to get a greenway between Bear Brook State Park and Pawtuckaway State Park. They’re active in Rockingham and Strafford counties. And I’ve climbed the 100 highest peaks in New England. I’ve climbed New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-footers in winter. Carolyn’s climbed all the New England 4,000-footers. That was in our younger years. We still hike, but we’re not that serious anymore.