New Hampshire’s Christmas tree farms are mostly very small operations—even by Granite State standards.
For a few weekends a year, they make a multimillion dollar dent in the economy, before going back to nurture next year’s crop. But this old-fashioned industry has been gradually adapting to new customer demands.
When you visit a Christmas tree farm, you’d think the first thing you’d see is the trees. But at Manson Donaghey’s farm in Pembroke, he decides to show me something else first: the kitchen. Where a woman is stationed at the stove, patiently stirring fragrant liquid in a big steel pot.
“Well, this is the chocolate factory, I guess," he announces with a big laugh. "Fran Evans, with some help, makes chocolate…constantly, hot chocolate! And is supplemented by homemade cookies that my family and others make—the neighbors help. We need at least three thousand homemade cookies to get by with our customers.”
At 88-years old, Donaghey has tree season down to a science. He’s been in business since he retired as a high school principal in 1980. Over the three weekends the farm is open, gallons of hot chocolate and thousands of cookies will hit the free refreshment table outside. This is where customers congregate to chat with neighbors and strangers as they take a break from hunting for and cutting down the perfect tree.
“You know, there’s a trite saying in our industry, that we don’t sell trees, we sell experience. Very trite, but true,” Donaghey says.
More so now than when Donaghey Christmas Tree Farm opened more than 30 years ago. That’s according to state Agricultural Development Director Gail McWilliam Jellie.
“Well, I was just having a conversation with a grower the other day about that, and things have actually shifted from an emphasis on wholesale in past years to more of a choose and cut and retail end of it," she says.
And that’s great news for New Hampshire’s 230 Christmas tree farms.
Like most agriculture in the state, McWilliam Jellie says the vast majority of these operations are considered “small farms” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—bringing in less than $250 thousand a year. But even by New Hampshire standards, Christmas tree farms are small-scale ag—pumping about $4 million into the state’s economy each year. But she says this tiny industry is part of a much larger awareness among consumers.
“It seems like it’s following that whole Buy Local concept. I think it’s been over the last 20 years or so, a gradual kind of shift. Thinking about some of the other commodities in the state, it’s been along that same line," McWilliam Jellie says. "You know, things have shifted from the emphasis on wholesale, and in the case of food, selling to supermarkets and other retailers, to selling directly to the consumer. And that same trend has taken in the tree industry.”
“On the majority of cut your own farms, the sales were going up, no matter what,” says Nigel Manley. He directs one of the state’s few large tree farms, the Forest Society’s Rocks Estate in Bethlehem. He also chairs the New Hampshire Christmas Tree Promotion Board. Even the recession, he says, didn’t keep customers away from the farms.
“But that means somewhere, because overall sales national for real trees are going down, so that means somewhere, somebody’s losing purchase there," Manley says. "And it’ll be some of the retailers, because people are trending more to move to this experience of cutting their own tree.”
Back in Pembroke, Manson Donaghey meanders around one of his tree lots. He says there’s a lot more to selling a tannenbaum than offering the Norman Rockwell-style trimmings. Although it’s a nostalgic trade, you have to anticipate new trends.
Yes, there are style trends in Christmas trees.
That’s tough, he says, when he has to plant about 1,200 new trees every April—which won’t be sawed for several years.
“When I started, Scotch Pine was extremely popular. We planted that first. Now, I don’t think we could sell a Scotch Pine," Donaghey says. "People don’t buy them anymore. There is a turnover, people’s taste buying Christmas trees. I think the same reason why they buy different clothes. They read about what’s popular, and because they’re there!”
If you’re not up on the latest fashion in Christmas trees, Donaghey says two varieties are hot right now. Fraser Firs and Canaan (pronounced "kuh-NON") Firs. He’s also banking on a new tree developed by his wholesale supplier in the North Country. It’s a cross between a Fraser Fir and a Fir Balsam. A Fralsam. But even if Donaghey guesses right, a lot can still happen to hit the bottom line. Rain or moderate snow on weekends don’t hurt business much—but a major snowstorm will. Then there’s the hard work in the spring and summer, planting, fertilizing, and in rare cases—spraying—trees.
Donaghey estimates that all those months of work by the family adds up to a grand total yearly profit of about...$10 thousand.
“Besides the brutality of some of the work, you get stung while you’re working or whatever, is the great joy we all feel, our euphoria when we open up," he says with a chuckle. "It’s hard, we’re tired at the end of the day, standing out in the weather and all, but still, it’s something I think we wouldn’t miss.”