From Thanksgiving to Christmas, John Curtis works 10 hours a day, seven days a week, harvesting Christmas trees on his 40-acre farm in Phillipsburg and showing customers where they can cut down their own. Prior to that, his wife, Cynthia, bakes 1,000 cookies for opening weekend. From Turkey Day on, she serves up more than 40 gallons each of hot chocolate and hot, spiced cider while selling an array of heirloom ornaments from the kitchen of their circa-1780 stone farmhouse. “We’re creating happiness and memories,” says Cynthia. By the time the couple sit down to Christmas dinner, they’ve sold about 2,000 mostly Douglas and Fraser firs. Each was planted as a tiny seedling 12 to 16 years earlier.
The couple’s Perfect Christmas Tree Farm is one of about 1,150 such farms in the Garden State, covering 6,000 acres, from which about 79,000 trees were harvested in 2011.
John, 72, grew up in Verona and began working at a nursery in Caldwell when he was 12. “I was earning 50 cents an hour, but I was hooked on trees,” he says. He made do with factory work until he bought his first Christmas-tree farm in 1970. Now, the Curtises grow 40 varieties of evergreens, including exotic species like Turkish and Korean.
“Christmas trees like mildly acidic soil, about pH 6,” John says. “When you plant seedlings in the field, you have to be careful not to bend the roots, or they get what’s called J-root and die. Trees need care all year. They need to be fertilized, sheared and constantly protected. Deer and bear will eat or rub against trees, destroying the bark. Birds can break the tops of young trees when they land on them. Bugs and fungus attack the roots and needles. You have to be an optimist and believe in the future to be a farmer.”
The farm keeps about 60 bow saws on hand for those who like to roll up their sleeves. Of the 2,000 or so trees the farm sells each year, about 1,300 are cut by customers. “People like to come out and make a day of it,” says John. Because he charges a flat $60 per tree ($47 for pre-cut) , the big ones go fast. “Everyone wants to get their money’s worth,” he says with a laugh, “so they buy a tree that’s way too big.”
After months of hard work, the Curtises enjoy a quiet Christmas at home. “Then we get out of town and travel. Yippee! We have children and a grandchild in Germany, a parent in Florida and old friends across the U.S. We aren’t the type to sit by the fire or lounge on the beach. We don’t do relax well.”
New Jersey ranks sixth in the nation in growing Christmas trees, providing nearly 79,000 to families and businesses last year.
All told, Americans spend $1.07 billion a year on Christmas trees—about $35 per person.
Last year, Americans brought home 31 million trees.
Fraser fir and Douglas fir are the most popular types, followed by balsam fir.
Real trees outsell artificial trees 3 to 1.
About 16 percent of people who buy a real tree cut it down themselves.
Figures from New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture and the National Christmas Tree Association.
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