Monday, November 30, 2009

Meet Dana Blais of Hidden Meadows Tree Farm in Bath

Dana and Jane Blais have been growing Christmas trees at Hidden Meadows Tree Farm in Bath since 1988. Over the past two decades, the Blaises have evolved from what Dana describes as “dabbling” in growing Christmas trees into a full-time business. Here’s what Dana had to say about his work when we caught up with him in November.

How did you get into Christmas tree farming?

“I more or less started around 1985. I’m trained as a forester, and at the time I was a county forester in Coos County. There’s quite a few Christmas tree growers in that area, and I just became interested in it. So I started to dabble in it a little bit. I like the land. I like farming. One thing led to another, and now I’m basically in it full time. It’s good work. I enjoy it. I still do some forestry work, but not a whole lot.”

How did you end up in Bath?

“My wife, Jane. She just happened to have some property here when I met her. I had my Christmas trees growing in several other locations, and this property is well suited to growing Christmas trees. So, we started growing trees here also.”

Do you still have trees in other places, too?

“Actually, now I don’t. I did buy land in Lancaster this spring, and I will begin to plant [there] in the spring of 2010.”

What is the size of your farm?

“Three hundred total acres, about 40 acres in trees. We are expanding. We have about 35,000 trees here now, and I think it’ll be another 10,000 or so. And I’ll be able to plant about 15,000 in Lancaster.”

What types of trees to you grow?

“Fraser, balsam and Canaan firs. I’ve dabbled in a few so-called exotics, and I continue to do that, but those three are the basics. I’m trying Korean fir now, and I think that has some promise.”

How many trees do you sell each season?

“Right now we sell an average of about 4,000 per year. We are open for choose-and-cut. We also sell into the wholesale market – Rotary clubs, fire departments. Jane and our daughter, Heather, also make beautiful wreaths, which we sell here.”

What is your favorite part of growing Christmas trees?

“I like all of it. I do like to put trees in the ground, to plant them. But I like the whole process.”

What is your least favorite part of growing Christmas trees?

“Dealing with diseases and insects. Sometimes it’s very difficult to control. The summers of 2007 and 2008, we had a tremendous amount of precipitation, which led to a big increase in a certain root disease. We’ve started putting in some subsurface drainage. Since Fraser is the most susceptible, I’m planting balsams and Canaans in some of those places.”

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

“I like to hike. I like it here in the mountains. And I hope the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl.”

Monday, November 2, 2009

Meet Mike Ahern of Glove Hollow Christmas Tree Farm in Plymouth

Glove Hollow Christmas Tree Farm ( has been in the Ahern family since 1897. Fourth generation farmer Mike Ahern and his wife Karen now own and manage the 435-acre farm. Mike’s father Omer planted the farm’s first Christmas trees in 1957, and Mike and Karen’s four children, aged 1 ½ - 11 years old, also help out around the family operation. Here’s what Mike had to say about the family business when we caught up with him in October.

The farm has been in your family for a long time.

“It started off as a dairy farm. My dad planted the first trees 52 years ago, and he lived long enough to see the 50th anniversary. When he planted the first trees, he had a construction company. He did have dairy cows, but he sold off the dairy cows and went to work for the government. He retired after 29 years working for the Sullivan County Government. We actually grew up in Unity, New Hampshire. My two older brothers and my dad would always come back and take care of the trees. And I came when I got old enough to start working, in first grade. I’ve been shearing and working on the trees since I was probably 7 years old. I’m 44 now. I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

When did you take over the operation?

“When I got out of college, it was like a magnet. When I got out in 1987, the economy was probably just as bad as it is now, so it was very easy to be able to come back and take care of the Christmas trees, because there was always work to do. At that time my dad was retired and doing most of the work himself. In 1994 I signed the paperwork to own the farm. My dad continued to help all the way up to 2007 when he passed away.”

Does your family help with the farm now?

“It really is a family thing. My wife has brought in the animals that our customers really enjoy seeing – four goats, two horses, rabbits. It really adds a lot to the flavor of the farm. People see the family connection when they get here. It’s not just a business – I guess you would call it a labor of love. Our kids are working right along beside us now, even though they’re still young. They’re getting the flavor of planting trees, and hopefully it will be in their blood like it was mine.”

What else is special about your farm?

“We’re all in one location – you actually get to visit one site and see 80,000 Christmas trees. There are mountains are all around the fields. The Hobo Railroad goes right through the center of our farm. One Saturday during the season, the train actually stops and the passengers get out and cut their Christmas tree and put it back on the cars to take with them. It’s kind of neat to see the train go right through the property. We also let customers take their vehicles right into the fields. Sometimes it’s their only chance to use their four-wheel drive.”

How big is your farm?

“Right now the Christmas tree portion is 172 acres, and there’s 260 acres of forested land. Our forest land is managed by a forester that’s been working with our family since the 1970s.”

What kinds of trees do you grow?

“We grow Frasers and Canaans. And we grow Fralsam – a cross between a Fraser and a balsam. We’re in a frost pocket and often get a late frost, so we’re forced to grow late-flushing trees, which just happens to be a couple of the best trees to grow.”

How many trees do you sell each year?

“We’re in a growth stage right now. We’ve always been about 43,000 Christmas trees in the ground, so we were selling 5,000-6,000 trees per year. Now we’ve got 80,000 trees in the ground, and we’re two years away from selling about 10,000 a year. We do cut-your-own and precut. We’ve got some people that have been buying their trees here for over 30 years.”

Do you sell anything else there?

“We sell wreaths. We mostly just concentrate on the trees. We never try to make anything commercialized here. We’re trying to be old fashioned and simple, but fresh.”

How many people work at the farm?

“We have kids that started off in high school that are still working with us. They know as much about the farm sometimes as I do. We have three fulltime seasonal employees and five or six others depending on what season we’re in.”

Do you have plans for any changes at the farm?

“We just added a tree house two years ago, overlooking the farm, with electricity and an observation deck. This year we added a couple of horse stalls and a paddock. It’s something that the public will be able to visit. As we get bigger and start handling more people, a lot of our ideas will hopefully become reality.”

What do you like most about your work?

“There’s always something different to do, and I really like that. I guess the best part about growing Christmas trees is the harvest, seeing all the customers come. It makes you feel like all the hard work you put into it really pays off. It really gets you psyched up for what you’ve done and what you’re going to do every year after.”

What’s the toughest part of growing trees?

“The real test is the patience you have to have to grow a really nice tree. We generally get the trees out 8-10 years after planning. The old timers will tell you, wait an extra year, don’t push it.”

What is something about growing trees that your customers might not realize?

“I think the attitude about Christmas trees has changed a lot in recent years. There are so many cut your own operations that have popped up, and they’re teaching their customers about it first hand. People really know the value of their tree.”