Pine Time: Women find Success in Christmas Tree Farming

Pine Time

For years, Jane Neubauer and her husband had driven past the bucolic 100-acre tree farm located five minutes from their home and admired its beauty.

So in 2012, when Sugar Pines Farm in Chesterland, Ohio, came up for sale, they took a leap of faith and purchased it. In doing so, they became operators of one of about 15,000 working Christmas tree farms in America.

Transitioning to the farm, which was established in the mid-1980s, seemed like a natural for Jane, a marketing research and business consultant and her husband, Fritz, an arborist by trade. She handles the business side of the operation, but doesn’t hesitate to jump in and get her hands dirty when it comes to planting, trimming and other upkeep duties. Fritz handles the majority of the maintenance and fieldwork. The couple gets an assist from their sons, Fritz III, 14 and Sam, 10, and they hire about 25 seasonal employees.

“It has been a great fit for people with our background,” Neubauer said. “Plus, we’re outdoors people—we love camping and hiking and kayaking, so the opportunity to work on a farm and be outdoors has been great.”

The exception to the love affair with the farm might be when the oft-unforgiving Northeastern Ohio winters creep in during the height of the pre-Christmas selling season. The farm is situated 30 miles east of Cleveland, and often is prone to massive lake-effect snowstorms. She remembers one particular Friday, in which 3 feet of snow fell on the region in a 24-hour period.

Jane Neubeuer with her son, Sam.

“When we opened the farm it was sunny, but the storm blew up quickly and people wound up getting stuck,” Neubauer recalled with a laugh. “I even remember a tow truck pulling in a minivan. They stopped and bought a tree and strapped it to the top of the van. Everyone made the best of the situation.”

Keeping up with the pace

It is the spirit of Christmas that drives the Neubauers, even in the long, hot, sweaty summers when there is much work to be done well in advance of the selling season, which begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs until the farm runs out of trees for the season. Planning—from safety procedures and inventory to staffing and signage— takes place year-round, and Neubauer typically begins fielding calls about the upcoming selling season before Halloween.

The farm also sells landscape trees in the spring and fall and produces its own maple syrup. At the holidays, offerings also include wreaths, pine roping and other fresh greenery décor.

Sugar Pines Farm has 30 acres of Christmas trees—Fraser fir, Canaan fir, blue spruce and Norway spruce. Customers can cut their own trees or can purchase live balled or fresh pre-cut trees. Because of the demand,

Sugar Pines Farm has to bring in trees from other area farms to supplement its own supply.

“We sell out every year,” Neubauer said. “We’ve been really fortunate.”

The hustle and bustle of the season also is a challenge for Mollie Anderson, who operates Grant Farms in Grant, Louisiana, with her husband, Gray. Mollie’s parents, Huey and Kathleen Bailey, established the farm in 1983, and Mollie and Gray purchased it in 1997. They have built it from a sleepy tree farm into a bustling agritourism operation that not only sells Christmas trees, but has a pumpkin patch, corn maze, hayrides, sugar cane, honeybees and more. Each season they sell about 3,000 Christmas trees. Their nursery also supplies between 30,000 and 35,000 trees to nurseries in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. If that activity isn’t enough, the Andersons also play host to school tours, nine weeks a year, five days a week, with an average of 150 kids per day.

“The activity is constant, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Anderson said. “I would be absolutely miserable in a desk job. This fits me perfectly because the job changes constantly.”

Anderson admits that dealing with the public, especially in a fast-paced environment, has its challenges. She points to the farm’s Fall Harvest Fest, which takes place the weekend after Thanksgiving. During the three-day stretch, Grant Farms sells about 500 trees and offers syrup-making demonstrations, breakfast and lunch, a petting zoo and visits with Santa.

It is a whirlwind weekend that ushers in a hectic four-week period.

“There is so much work and stress, but we try to hide it well,” Anderson said. “We focus on customer service and a clean family environment. We are picky about the workers we hire and the things that happen on the farm because we want to create an atmosphere for wholesome family traditions.”

Looking into the future

One of the biggest challenges Christmas tree farmers such as the Andersons and the Neubauers face is trying to predict what consumer demand will look like years down the road. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, it can take as many as 15 years to grow a 6-foot to 7-foot tree, or as little as four years, but average growing time is seven years.

“It’s really hard to predict what customers are going to want seven years from now, but we try our best,” Neubauer said. “What’s hot today might not be hot in a few years.”

Choices are a little more cut and dried at Grant Farms, as the warm Louisiana climate dictates which trees will thrive. The farm sells Leyland Cypress, Ovensii, Castlewellan Gold, Naylor’s Blue, Blue Ice and Virginia pine trees.

Tim O’Connor, executive director of the Littleton, Colorado-based National Christmas Tree Association, said growers whose farms were able to weather an overproduction of trees about 15 years ago, followed by the economic downturn of 2007 through 2009, are well positioned today.

“The supply is tight because a lot of growers didn’t survive the downturn and those who did just didn’t plant as many trees,” O’Connor said. “Sales are aggressive, so it’s a good moment to be in the business.”

The payoff

Customers cut about 75 percent of the trees sold at the Sugar Pines Farm, and Neubauer said the payoff for all the hard work comes when she sees families find that perfect tree or enjoy a hayride, hot chocolate or s’mores by the bonfire pit and a visit from Santa.

“It’s a lot of work. Probably much more work than we realized when we first got into this, but it’s also much more gratifying than we realized,” Neubauer said. “Getting to see the fruits of our labor when we see families enjoying it and knowing that we will be a part of families’ memories forever is really special. There is nothing like seeing tons of smiling kids and families taking pictures and knowing that we’re a part of their tradition. After all, it’s likely one of the only times all year that families actually come together for an outing. That’s not to say we’ve haven’t seen fights over finding the perfect tree, but that’s certainly the exception.”

Anderson shares those sentiments. Some of the stress that comes with keeping up with finances, staffing and demand for trees melts away like a late-season snowfall when she sees little faces light up at the first sight of that perfect Christmas tree.

“It’s all about making memories,” Anderson said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard someone say ‘My parents used to bring me here when I was growing up, and now I’m grown and I have my kids here.’ Relationship building is what it’s all about. We want to be a part of their family, and we want them to be a part of ours.”

Six years in, Neubauer said she is glad she made the transition from corporate life to farming, and believes she has been able to strike the proper balance between wife, mother, entrepreneur and farmer.

“It has been a great family business because it has allowed the kids to grow up in an environment in which they can learn how to grow things and they can see what hard work is,” Neubauer said. “Also, it has given me the flexibility to be able to step away and help at school and do things I may not have been able to do otherwise. That might mean having to work extra on Sundays or something, but it has definitely been worth it.”

Jane Neubeuer with her son, Sam

Developing the next generation

Anderson said she hopes young women who have grown up on a farm, or who have participated in agriculture education programs, will consider a career in the field. She encourages them to make sure they are well rounded, and believes they should learn the business side of running an agricultural operation.

“We have a great accountant who is a good friend, but that’s one area of the business I wish I was better in,” Anderson said. “At the end of the day, you have got to be able to make a dollar, which means you have to do a good job of keeping track of where your money goes.”

Neubauer said she hopes her success in farming can be an inspiration to other young women interested in a career in agriculture. She said the best advice she can impart is to be diligent, but remember that there are circumstances, such as weather or commodity prices, that simply are out of their control so they can’t allow themselves to become discouraged. And though hard work is worn as a badge of courage, there is no shame in leaning on others for direction and a helping hand.
“In family-run businesses like this, you learn in a hurry that you just can’t do it all by yourself,” Neubauer said. “You need to focus on the things that you’re good at and that you’re passionate about, and find someone who is willing to help with the rest. If you can do that, you will have a rewarding career.”

Christmas Tree Facts

*Between 25 million and 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the United States each year. In 2017, 27.4 million real trees were purchased at an average price of $75. That is compared with 21.1 million artificial trees purchased at an average of $107.

*There are nearly 350 million Christmas trees currently growing on 350,000 acres in the United States.

*There are more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the United States.

*For every real Christmas tree harvested, between one and three seedlings are planted.

*There are nearly 15,000 farms growing Christmas trees in the United States.

*U.S. Christmas tree farms employ more than 100,000 people on a full-time or part-time basis.

*It can take as many as 15 years to grow a 6-foot to 7-foot tree, or as little as four years, but average growing time is seven years.

*Although Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states, the top producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.

Courtesy of the National Christmas Tree Association

 

To learn more about Sugar Pines Farm, visit www.sugarpinesfarm.com

To learn more about Grant Farms, visit www.grantchristmastreefarm.com

 

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