Brothers Horace and Frank Somes are gearing up for the busiest weekend of the year at the farm their family has worked for more than a century on the edge of the Pinelands in lower Burlington County.
They are Christmas tree farmers, and their spread in Wading River, Washington Township, is a place where traditions are born and memories are made.
"We'll be hustling all day long," said Frank Somes, 61, who retired a year ago from the Burlington County Highway Department. "It's a great job to see the families coming out with the kids."
The family did not always grow Christmas trees at the farm their grandfather Howard McAnney started in 1906.
Vegetables for the table and market. Corn to feed the chickens at the egg farms that once dotted South Jersey. Firewood. Those were their grandfather's crops.
"They raised whatever they could raise," said Horace Somes, 65. They also fished, hunted, and trapped, as residents of the Pine Barrens have done for centuries.
In 1974, however, the Somes brothers' parents - both U.S. Forest Service employees - were thinking about retiring from their jobs, and the Wading River Tree Farm was born.
The farm, open only on weekends during the preholiday season, is one of 900 in New Jersey, making the state fifth in the nation in the number of Christmas tree operations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pennsylvania is second with 1,200.
But New Jersey's farms, like Wading River, tend to be small - the state harvest ranked 19th, with nearly 79,000 trees in 2007. Pennsylvania was fourth with 1.2 million.
Christmas trees are a small part of New Jersey's agricultural industry, but they are part of the nursery, greenhouse, and sod sector that accounts for 40 percent of the state's $1.12 billion in cash receipts for agricultural products.
The Wading River property covers about 100 acres of fields and woods, but only about 12 acres are planted with Christmas trees, Horace Somes said.
It takes at least seven years for a Christmas tree sapling to grow to an optimum height of seven or eight feet, and each acre has more than 1,000 trees - all in different stages of growth.
The family grows blue spruce, Norway spruce, white pine, Douglas fir, white fir, and Scotch pine. Trees sell for $15 to $50, and the family also offers a selection of wreaths hand made from trimmed branches or trees that cannot be sold.
"It's a variety of trees for a variety of people," Horace Somes said.
Making a living from the small tree farm alone would be difficult, but it is the sort of operation where one can hold a job and tend to the land.
"You don't have to be here all the time," said Horace Somes, who retired three years ago from the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
During spring and summer, the Somes brothers and their families plant saplings, fertilize and lime the soil, and mow to control weeds.
In June and July, they shear the trees to maintain what Frank Somes called their "Hershey kiss shape."
Sales are down this year, but the brothers said that was expected. Most of their customers come from nearby Ocean County, hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy.
"Some of them don't have houses to put trees in," said Barbara Somes, Horace's wife and wreath maker-in-chief.
Donna Cole, a Hunterdon County Christmas tree farmer and executive director of the state Christmas Tree Growers Association, said that operations on the west side of the state were "holding their own" but that sales so far had been down in the eastern half, probably because of Sandy.
On Sunday, Tim and Tracy Jones and their four daughters - Samantha, 15; Madison, 14; Stephanie, 10; and Georgia, 7 - came to the farm from their Ocean County home to cut the tree they chose the weekend before Thanksgiving.
They have been coming to Wading River for six years, Tim Jones said, and this year they brought a friend who is a photographer to take photos for the family's Christmas card.
"It wouldn't be Christmas without coming here," Tim Jones said.
Tracy Jones said she had one requirement for a tree: "Anything soft, not prickly."
The family had chosen a seven-foot-tall white pine, a tree that has soft, long needles. For their family photo, they decorated it right there, with a winding strip of burlap and a star Tracy Jones made of sticks and twine.
"You look good when you get all dressed up," photographer Carol Daly said, teasing the girls as they stood before the still-standing tree.
"This place is great," Tim Jones said. "It's always special."
With the pine netted and strapped to the roof of their SUV, the Jones family took the tree back to their home in West Creek, where they planned to decorate it that night.
Horace Somes said he and his family were trying to keep more than a Christmas tradition alive with their farm.
"It's to maintain the rural lifestyle, and it keeps the land in production," he said. "It's all about family connection."
Contact Joseph Gambardello at 856-779-3868 or firstname.lastname@example.org.