From year-round work comes a seasonal sale

Christmas: Tree farmers rely on four weeks during the holiday season for a year's income.

November 28, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin and Sandy Alexander | Jennifer McMenamin and Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

For 11 months of the year, Wayne Thomas plants and shears and mows with no income to speak of for all his hard work.

But come the Friday after Thanksgiving, the clock starts ticking at the 80-acre Thomas Tree Farm in northern Carroll County, where he and his wife, Marian, have less than four weeks to earn a year's salary.

Such is the life of a full-time Christmas tree farmer.

"It takes pretty well all of our time to take care of the trees all year," said Wayne Thomas, 63, who expects to sell about 2,400 of his 30,000 trees this year. "This is our payday."

Most every kind of retailer - including department stores, florists, caterers and post offices - braces for brisk sales and busier workdays in the weeks leading to the holidays. But the concept of seasonal work takes on added meaning for Christmas tree farmers, whose selling season is compressed, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Some part-timers use Christmas trees for supplemental income - the same way full-time workers earn extra money in December by playing Santa or working as a waitress at holiday parties. But for other tree farmers, including the Thomases, growing and selling spruce, pine and fir trees is a full-time job.

The Maryland Christmas Tree Association estimates that the state has 200 growers. The 100 farms that belong to the association have planted about 4.2 million trees on 5,280 acres, and they harvest about 370,000 trees each year.

Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Pennsylvania have large wholesalers that produce millions of Christmas trees annually. But most Maryland tree farms are operations of 100 acres or less that allow customers to choose and cut their own trees, said Cindy Stacy, a Christmas Tree Association spokeswoman.

"Most of our guys and gals are mom and pop farms," said Stacy, who runs Pinetum, a 300-acre tree farm in Garrett County, with her husband, Marshall.

Christmas trees are not harvested for seven to 10 years after farmers plant 4-year-old seedlings in their fields. It can be difficult to decide so far in advance how many and what types to grow, said Joncie Underwood, who works part time for her family's Pine Valley Christmas Trees in Elkton. "You not only project the customer base, but what are people's tastes going to be in 10 years?"

Typical of Maryland growers is Triadelphia Lake View Farm, a 40-acre Christmas tree farm in Howard County, whose customers include Laura Bush. The first lady requested three Fraser firs this year from the Glenwood farm, which doesn't grow that variety but has ordered the trees precut from others during the past few years to sell.

James Brown, whose parents, Linda and Jim Brown, own Triadelphia Lake View Farm, had to pass a security screening to be allowed to deliver the trees next week to the Blair House, a building across the street from the White House that is used for guests and events.

For Wayne Thomas, selling Christmas trees is a hobby-turned-profession.

Although he is officially open for business from Nov. 15 to Dec. 24, he'll pretty much sell a tree whenever anyone wants one.

"It's hard for me to imagine anyone not remembering Christmas," Thomas said. "But it always happens that a man comes in on Christmas Eve and wants the biggest tree he can find. We have had people buy trees on Christmas Day. And we usually have to get up from Thanksgiving dinner to help someone with a tree. It's just part of the business."

He keeps his prices simple. Customers can have any tree on the farm for $28, tax included, whether their interest is piqued by a 5-foot fir or the towering Norway spruce that's been growing in the front yard for more than four decades.

"For 28 bucks, if you can cut it and haul it, you can have it," Thomas said.

The couple never intended to earn a living from Christmas trees.

After they took over Wayne Thomas' family's farm on Route 30 just north of Manchester, Marian Thomas' father, a state park forester, helped them plant a few trees on land they weren't using. "It just sort of evolved from that," Wayne Thomas said. When Thomas was laid off from his job as a safety and health supervisor with Hampstead's Black and Decker plant 13 years ago, the couple decided to devote themselves to raising trees. They recently gave up a part-time wedding and portrait photography business.

Of their full-time job, Wayne Thomas said, "It's a lot of hard work and a lot of hours, but it's good work."

Tending to each season's crop of trees begins just weeks after Christmas, when Thomas begins lopping off the stumps, below ground level, of the trees that his customers cut down. An application of herbicide follows in the rows of bare ground where he'll plant seedlings, and by April 1, about 3,500 plantings go into the ground.

"Then the really big job begins," Thomas said with a chuckle. "Every single tree on the farm has to be trimmed. They all have to be pruned every year, and that takes us most of the summer."

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