by Sanne Kure-Jensen
“How tough can it be to grow Christmas trees?” Eric Watne said. He has learned a lot during the past eight years as co-owner of Clark Farm in Tiverton, RI. He has also become president of the Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers Association.
Taking over a neglected Christmas tree farm was a challenge for novice growers, Eric and Cat Watne. The founder of the Clarks Christmas Tree Farm had retired and moved away in the late 1990s. The next owner neglected some trees completely. Other trees had been shaved to maintain their overall size. Tree trunk diameter continued to grow thicker every year. Eric said his staff could cut the thickest trunks by hand, but then their arm would be useless for up to an hour. The Watnes eventually resorted to using chain saws — just until all the old, thick-trunked trees were sold. Now, handsaws do not disturb the peace and quiet of a winter day in the country.
“After Thanksgiving weekend, the weekends closest to Dec. 12 and 17 are always busiest,” explained Cat. “Most people come on good weather days between 11 and 2,” Eric added. On a busy day, the farm typically sells 50 to 60 trees.
Staff cut nearly all the trees at Clark Farm after families select their favorite tree. Cat said a handful of customers bring saws to cut their own.
Trees grown in Rhode Island take at least seven years to reach a salable size. Eric said he learned from an experienced Christmas tree grower to stop selling farm-cut trees when he had sold 1/7th of his trees. “That way you won’t run out of trees next year,” explained Eric.
Eric shared his lessons on spacing trees. When he bought the farm, trees were somewhat randomly planted. He and customers loved the forest-like feel. But the “helter skelter” arrangement made tractor mowing impossible. After two seasons of weed whacking around four to five acres of trees, Eric began to realize why rows made sense for mowing. He now uses rope and string to lay out new rows.
The ‘Southern New England Christmas Tree Grower’s Manual’ (available as pdf files at www.christmas-trees.org/SNE-GrowersManual.pdf ) recommends spacing of 4 ft. by 4 ft. for farms that will not be mowing between the rows. Eric said farms that let customers into their fields need to think of their farms as retails space. He recommends 7 ft. row spacing with trees 6 ft. apart.
Other Farm Products
Each year Cat makes 75 to 100 fresh wreaths with local and purchased greens. Cat likes to start the year with an abundant display of wreaths so she makes some every day in late November and well into December.
For years, Cat made each wreath unique. Now she makes a selection of pairs for people with double doors. With an assistant cutting branches into small lengths, Cat can make a wreath in as little as five to six minutes.
Customers can enjoy hot cider after selecting their tree. This year Acacia Café of Little Compton will bring their food truck to the farm offering coffee and warm soups made of local ingredients.
Great gifts are available in the post-and-beam farm store including DeLucia jams from nearby Little Compton, RI and Doc McBratney’s honey from South Dartmouth, MA. Customers will also find handmade soaps, candles and maple syrup.
A Full Experience
Customers can tag trees for cutting by farm staff, select trees in the field or choose precut trees. Tree varieties include Fraser Fir, Douglas Fir, Concolor Fir, Canaan Fir, Nordmann Fir, Siberian Spruce and Blue Spruce. There will be150 trees brought in from Hartikka Tree Farm in Voluntown, CT and Henry’s Tree Farm in Hope, RI. These pre-cut trees will remain fresh through New Year given proper care.
Loyal and Generous Customers
Many customers have been coming to Clark Farms for three generations. One generous customer comes by early each season and pays for a tree, but does not take one home. He said, “Give it to someone who cannot afford it.” Eric described a family from Fall River who picked a tree last December. When the father went to pay, he looked sheepish when asking the price in front of his large family. Eric suggested that the family purchase a stand and he would throw in the tree. Cat said they probably give away two to three trees this way every year.
Labor and Training
Eric and Cat plant tree seedlings each April. Eric mows the tree farm each week April through October. He weed-whacks around trees biweekly and watches for pest or disease problems. Fast action using IPM techniques prevents severe outbreaks and minimizes pesticide and fungicide use. Eric said he could easily use 30 hrs/week if he were retired from his day job.
Beside Eric, Cat and their two children, up to four young men and one neighbor couple help out on busy Thanksgiving and December weekends. Eric admits he probably overpays his kids and staff. In return, he gets great customer service and farm loyalty in return.
Beyond offering great customer service and cash register training, staff need to know tree varieties and basic tree care. Eric has always felt a need to check the knots when trees are tied on car roofs to be sure customers do not lose their trees on the way home.
Tress stumps are cut close to the ground to protect mower blades. Eric orders tree seedlings in 500-plus batches for quantity discounts. Only the smallest seedlings go into nursery beds. Medium-sized seedlings get planted directly into field rows.
Visit Clarks Christmas Tree Farm at 4191 Main Road (Route 77), one mile south of historic Tiverton Four Corners, RI. The farm opens the Friday after Thanksgiving and will be open thereafter every Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Christmas Eve or until they run out of trees for the year.
Learn more at www.clarkschristmastreefarm.com or visit their Facebook Page.
by Sanne Kure-Jensen