New Jersey is known as the Garden State, famed for its tomatoes and corn, but in winter, when nothing else grows, it’s Christmas trees that sustain the agriculture economy.
According to the New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers Association, our state is ranked seventh in the nation for number of Christmas tree farms. There were 700 Christmas tree farms in the state as of the last count taken.
The typical Christmas tree farm is called a “choose and cut” farm. It consists of a farm with rows and even miles of Christmas trees. Most often the proprietors have a tractor that will ride patrons to the specific species of tree they want, and then they get to choose and cut down a tree to bring home.
Local Christmas tree farm will have a variety of trees. This can range from Frasier Firs, to Colorado Blue Firs, to exotics like the Norwegian Fir. In a series of interviews, The VOICE found farmers agree there is no favorite type of Christmas tree. Preference is personal, they say; what someone grew up with is usually the Christmas tree they are looking for
So, why would someone spend hours in the cold to get a Christmas tree? Tim Dunne, Vice President of the New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers Association, which helps local farmers plant and advertise, told The VOICE that visiting your local farm is more than just getting a tree. He described it as “agricultural tourism.”
Dunne says families will make a whole day of it, having picnics, going on hayrides, drinking hot chocolate or cider that many farms provide, and enjoying the holiday spirit. He said, “I’ve never heard anyone say what a great time they had at Home Depot getting their Christmas tree, but I’ve had multiple families tell me what a great time they’ve had on my farm.”
If you don’t want don’t want to go out to the middle of a field, get down on your hands and knees with a saw and start cutting, all Christmas tree farms have a pre-cut section where you can make a choice. Most also offer wreaths, ornaments, and hot chocolate.
One place that has a variety of wreathes–some with names like the “Harry Potter”–is less than five minutes from Mercer’s West Windsor campus, called Perennial Favorites. Carol Brooks Thomas, the owner says they offer trees of all sizes and will trim and drill them for you, creating an easy surface for inserting the tree into a typical stand.
But for those who like to get out the saw and get sap on their hands, tree farmer Frank Dominiani says, “You can affirm your manhood with your family.” You can go out, pick, cut and carry a tree.
When The VOICE arrived at Dominiani’s 7-acre farm, there was a man that was carrying a full, 6- foot tree single-handedly. The cost was about $60, i.e. $10 per foot.
“You don’t get a tree like that at a chain store,” Dominiani told The VOICE.
These farms usually sell trees for between $30-100. This may seem like a lot compared to local Home Depot where many people get their trees and prices range from $29-59.
Why do trees cost more at local farms? Samantha Jany, co-owner of Simonson Farm, not far from Mercer, told the VOICE that it takes about 7-10 years to fully grow a Christmas tree to a sellable size. Out of all the seedlings that the farmers plant, only about half will survive to be that old. Time and patience are costly, but the experience of going to a “choose and cut” is part of what you are paying for.
As for Home Depot, Dunne said they can afford to sell low because they buy trees in bulk. However, those trees, he says, are shipped in from far away states. He also said that those trees aren’t freshly cut, and would be turning brown and losing needles by Christmas Day.
Jany told The VOICE “[Home Depot] doesn’t actually purchase premium grade trees that we grow.”
Dunne says, patrons should go to a local farm “If you want a fresh tree that is locally grown, and if you want the true Christmas tree experience.”
As one Mercer student, Bridget Riley said: “It’s tradition, It keeps Christmas alive.”