Christmas trees are work Challenge: Growers of the evergreen symbol of the season say 12 months of effort go toward four weeks in December.

December 11, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Customers drive down the gravel lane of Otterdale View Christmas Tree Farm, come upon the log cabin and acres of evergreen hills behind it and think: Now this is the life.

"Like it all just popped out of the air," said Jeanie Coshun, resin-stained canvas gloves protecting her hands as she shaped pine and cedar branches into a 12-inch wreath at the Carroll County farm.

As Christmas tree farmers, people such as Jeanie and William Coshun work hard 12 months to make things pretty for four weeks in December.

As with all farming, raising trees is year-round hard work and a contest with drought, disease and infestation.

Looking for that perfect specimen of nature? Nature had some help in the form of human hands who shaped it six months ago -- hands that might shear or trim 200 trees a day for three months.

"People just think you put the tree in the ground, and it grows, but you go to that tree dozens of times," said Lydia Turnbauth, manager of Mount Carmel Tree Farm in northern Baltimore County.

Growers across Maryland are in full swing selling the scent of Christmas.

Prices can range from $18 a tree in Carroll, which has an abundance of choose-and-cut farms, to up to $80 for a prized Fraser fir grown on Brandy Farms near Crofton in Anne Arundel County, which has only a few tree farms. Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties have several farms.

Otterdale View Christmas Tree Farm, just west of Uniontown, did not pop out of the air. It grew from the ground, little by little, for 14 years, amid challenges of drought such as the one that killed hundreds of Douglas firs and all the seedlings planted in the spring. They have to watch for fungi and insects that have to be caught before they do too much damage and, oh yes, milk the cows.

"This is really a dairy farm, but we wanted something else to diversify," Jeanie Coshun said. "It's a lot of work."

Time for a breather

The Coshuns can take a breather right after Christmas, but in January they do accounting, tally how many trees were cut and order seedlings. In February, they remove stumps.

In March and through April, they plant seedlings that won't mature for seven to 10 years.

May brings more of the mowing that started in April to control the grass and weeds around trees.

In June, the shearing starts for pine trees, and shearing, trimming, mowing and inspection for disease and insects go on through the summer and fall. Firs and other species can wait, but pine trees have to be sheared -- trimmed back -- during June and July to allow the tree to fill in the sides instead of just shooting straight up, and to grow evenly all around.

"People want theirs to be perfect, pretty much," Jeanie Coshun said.

Patience required

Starting a Christmas tree farm takes two things: patience and another source of income. Coshun started making wreaths as a way of earning some money before the trees matured to a selling height seven years ago.

Jane Wolfe and her husband, Roger, depended on his income from the insurance business in 1977 when they bought the 80-acre Pine Valley Farms in Woodbine, then a traditional farm with hogs and grain. Roger Wolfe had grown up on a farm, but his wife and their children had no experience. Middle-class suburban friends back in Montgomery County were amused.

They started planting Christmas trees and phased out the other farm operations, selling their first crop of trees in 1984.

Turnbauth doesn't own Mount Carmel but has worked there since a radiologist friend opened it as one of the first choose-and-cut farms in the county in 1970.

Like other tree farmers, Turnbauth does this work because she loves it. She has remained through four owners as the only full-time employee, doing all the shearing, trimming and mowing.

"I just like the outdoors," she said. "I like to watch the trees grow."

The Coshuns look forward to a monthlong cavalcade of friends who come to buy trees or help sell.

Last week, Betty and Marvin Nelson, a retired couple who live in New Windsor, about five miles from the Coshuns, came in for a fragrant fix.

"We've had an artificial tree for too many years," Betty Nelson said. They had switched to an artificial tree for the convenience. But enough of that. "I like the smell of the pine," she said.

No shortage of trees

Regardless of the drought, customers will find no shortage of local choose-and-cut trees this year, and growers usually can replant more in the spring to make up for the lost seedlings from last year.

Of course, trees aren't for everybody.

Turnbauth prefers not to have a tree of her own because her children are grown, and she enjoys being around them on the farm all year.

"I think, why cut down a tree for just one week?" she said. "We know how long it takes to grow a tree."

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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