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Pennsylvania farmers use sweat, science to craft the perfect Christmas tree

Last year, 21.4 million real Christmas trees were sold in the United States.

Jay Bustard pictured at his Christmas tree farm in Lehighton, PA on Friday, November 2, 2018. Bustard and his brother Glenn run Bustard's Christmas Trees in Landsdale, PA.
Jay Bustard pictured at his Christmas tree farm in Lehighton, PA on Friday, November 2, 2018. Bustard and his brother Glenn run Bustard's Christmas Trees in Landsdale, PA.Read moreErin Blewett

In the olden, golden days of yore, Santa Claus stuffed a tree down the chimney on Christmas Eve with the toys and set it all up before jingling off to the next house.

Today, people are picking out pines and firs before the Thanksgiving turkey's picked clean, and some of those trees have been genetically altered with varieties from South Korea and Turkey to be nearly invincible, or at least not drop their needles for over a month. That's why J.D. Fleming, 65, was barking out orders and manhandling waterlogged Douglas firs in the cold rain a few days before Thanksgiving at his Indiana County farm.

"In the next three days, 95 percent of what you see here," he said, "will be gone."

Fleming and his crew had just finished tightening the straps on a load of 275 trees heading toward Pittsburgh, 70 miles to the southwest. Thousands of trees, baled and stacked by height, lined his property, and many of Pennsylvania's 1,400 other tree farms, as buying time edges further into November.

"People want their lots open by Black Friday," Fleming said.

Pennsylvania, with approximately one million trees cut, is one of the top suppliers of real Christmas trees in the United States, fourth behind Oregon, North Carolina, and Michigan. Most of Pennsylvania's trees are balsam, Douglas, and Fraser firs. New Jersey was 17th on the list, though the country's first Christmas tree farm was planted near Trenton in 1901.

Real trees have sold consistently over the last decade, with 27.4 million purchased last year, and the National Christmas Tree Association says millennials in particular are interested in real, locally grown trees. With the average price at $75, fresh-cut trees are a  $2 billion industry in the United States.

"New, young families are in it for the experience," said Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the NCTA.

Indiana County, about 280 miles northwest of Philadelphia,  has been growing and selling trees in bulk since 1918 and is the self-described "Christmas Tree Capital of the World," with anywhere from 25 to 35 farms operating there.

"That's the only thing we know. That's in our blood," said Gregg Van Horn, president of the Indiana County Christmas Tree Growers Association. "You grew up with it and most of your family was in it and that's what you did."

According to the county growers' association, the title of "capital" was claimed in 1956, when 700,000 trees were cut there. Indiana County was home to more than 200 farms in the 1950s. A town in northwest Washington tried to wrest the designation away, but it was later learned that a farmer from Indiana County had actually supplied the state with some of its trees. Today, other states grow and sell more trees, like Oregon's Willamette Valley, but Indiana County holds fast to the title.

Van Horn said his farm in Creekside, with 4,000 trees, is just a "small one" in Indiana County, and a fungus nearly wiped him out recently. Christmas trees require constant shearing to stay shapely and take anywhere from six to 10 years to reach ideal cutting height.

"I've been messing with trees my whole life," he said. "My dad mainly did custom tree baling. When he died in '85, I was 20, and I took over."

Up in the parking lot at Fleming's farm, a line of trucks formed in the rain. Bill Robinson drove hours from Geneva, Ohio, to buy about 100 trees he'll sell at his apple farm. He sat in his car while Douglas firs traveled up a gas-powered elevator and dropped into his trailer.

"They're the best trees," Robinson said. "It's worth the ride."

No municipality or region has laid claim to being the "Artificial Christmas Tree Capital of the World," but Yiwu, in China's Zhejiang province, produces 60 percent of the world's decorations, including artificial trees.

The debate over real vs. artificial trees plays on personal preference, aesthetics, and environmental concerns, but there's disagreement over what choice is better for the planet. A study commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association found that artificial trees are the better environmental choice if used for more than five years. ACTA represents artificial-tree manufacturers, however — a detail that's difficult to glean from its website.

NCTA, which represents tree growers, doesn't mince words about artificials. It calls them "fakes" and notes that 85 percent are imported from China. Real trees, the organization counters, are recycled after the season and replaced by new seedlings, millions of acres producing oxygen each year. Plus, tree farms support agricultural, blue-collar jobs.

"All the trees that are bought and used in North America are grown in North America," Hundley said. "Most states in the country grow Christmas trees. I'm sure artificial trees won't end the world as we know it, but it's about the quality of our lives."

Jay Bustard said his 30-acre property in Lehighton, Carbon County, would likely be new housing if he and his brother weren't growing trees there. Bustard also grows trees in Montgomery County and Albert County, New Brunswick, but the Lehighton farm is part of a multinational research project in conjunction with Penn State. Some of Bustard's trees came from seed banks, variations from South Korea and Turkey, and he carries a pocket magnifying glass through his fields, burying his face into their branches to look for things like needle firmness and trunk density.

Today's Christmas trees are Frankensteins, studied, spliced, and genetically altered in laboratories. Trees can be tweaked for size, weight, color, odor, and branch strength for those heavy-duty ornaments.

"A 12-foot Fraser fir used to run about 140 pounds and we reduced it down to 90, which a father and a teenage son could easily handle," Bustard said. "Part of it was genetics, but it was mostly nutrients and pruning. We really watch the micro nutrients."

Most of all, buyers want trees that hold their needles, and shaking one is the equivalent to kicking the tires on a used car. Bustard said he sells about 7,000 trees a year and approximately a handful are returned for dropping needles.

"Back in the '50s, if you got two weeks out of a tree, that was a good deal," Bustard said.

Fleming is a second-generation farmer, and his son, who lives in Philadelphia, is not interested in being a third. It's been difficult for him to get workers, despite putting advertisements throughout the county. On this day, Fleming kept a dozen workers in constant motion in the rain.

"I would like to have 30," he said. "I get some guys who come for a few days and quit. That's been our biggest struggle, all year."

Fleming has been downsizing his property in Indiana County, too, from a high of 450 acres to 150 today. He's tired, and has been basically deadlifting 100-pound trees for two months. Retirement isn't far off.

"I could probably use the exercise," he said. "But I started at dawn and didn't get out of here yesterday until a quarter to 11."

But just moments after he said that, Fleming hurried off in his rain slickers, telling one employee to "find something to do" and directing traffic. The Florida-bound shipment was due to be loaded.

"Next guy is getting 900," he belted out.