by Sally Colby
When Suzanne Stokoe left the family farm for college, she had no plans to return.
“I went to school for biology, worked at a research facility then became a veterinary technician,” said Suzanne. “About 21 years ago, the dirt in my blood came back. I returned to the farm and started the pumpkin patch and Harvest Fest while still working full-time. I had always worked on the farm on weekends and during the Christmas season, but it was never my passion like it is now.”
Suzanne recalled that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Stokoe Farms featured U-pick strawberries, blueberries and peaches. Her father was providing agritainment before it had a name, and understood that for consumers, a farm visit was more than coming to the farm to pick strawberries. The family eventually phased out U-pick crops in favor of concentrating on other aspects of the farm.
Stokoe Farms, established in 1812 in Scottsville, NY, has continued to grow and develop as a place for families who enjoy the activities and crops of each season. Suzanne is now a sixth-generation farmer who is helping move the farm ahead, and her parents Larry and Martha also continue to play vital roles on the farm.
“When my father retired from the main cash crop operation, he started growing Christmas trees full-time,” said Suzanne. They grow about 90 acres of trees. “Our tagline is ‘the best Christmas begins here.’” Suzanne said the family strives to provide more than just seasonal fun or a Christmas tree and hopes to create an environment where families come to create memories.
“That’s how we can set ourselves apart,” said Suzanne. “It’s about family time, but still a farm experience, which is getting harder to find as years go on. It’s how to keep things true to the farm nature with a hands-on experience. We try to keep up to date and interesting to people without becoming an amusement park. Agritourism offers a way for family members who wouldn’t necessarily be cash crop farmers to come into the business. It’s been a way to expand employment and revenue different from ‘just a farmer.’”
When Suzanne first came back to the farm, the pumpkin crop was a “let’s see how it goes” undertaking, with just a few farm-related activities for children. “This will be our 21st year,” she said. “I had the advantage of the family name and recognition and a customer base who wanted to come here with their families. We had buildings, tractors and wagons – some base structure. With having both pumpkins and Christmas trees, we were able to expand both businesses together.”
Pumpkins are planted with what Suzanne referred to as a low-tech planter her father made. “We do a single row at a time,” she said. “I drop every seed by hand and it has always worked great for us. We map out different varieties for a range of sizes across the field. That also helps us keep track of which varieties we like, which ones are more susceptible to disease and the ones customers like best.”
Originally, Suzanne planted a selection of specialty pumpkin varieties when they were first available, then phased those out in favor of gourds. Now gourds are less popular and customers are seeking specialty pumpkins. “The standard jack-o’-lantern is always the favorite, but people are definitely looking for specialty pumpkins.” Suzanne added that social media, such as Pinterest, has fueled the demand for unusual pumpkins. But there’s a trade-off: specialty pumpkins don’t yield as well as traditional varieties and require more acreage so they demand a higher price.
Sunflowers have been a growing trend over the past five years, so Stokoe Farms features field-grown sunflowers with a walking path. “Some rows are single variety test rows to see how we like them; others are mixed,” said Suzanne. “There are more timing issues with sunflowers than any other fall crop, so we do multiple plantings to spread flowering.” The Stokoes plant close to 30 sunflower varieties, including single-headed oilseed, mammoth and dwarf varieties in colors ranging from pale buttercream to cherry chocolate. Customers who come for the weekend Sunflower Experience can take photos, enjoy the farm’s activities and cut sunflowers.
When sunflowers are finished, the Stokoes take time to wind down from summer and prepare for autumn events. The farm’s Harvest Fest is open from late September through late October. Both children and adults enjoy the farm’s soybean maze, added several years ago as the result of customer survey. After the Harvest Fest, the family begins to prepare for Christmas.
“It’s a totally different setup and layout of the farm,” said Suzanne, explaining Christmas preparations, “and we start to harvest pre-cut trees and make wreaths.” About 12% to 15% of Christmas tree sales are fresh-cut depending on the year and weather, but most people enjoy the wagon ride out to the field to choose their own tree.
A selection of fir varieties are available as U-cut or pre-cut. Suzanne said Fraser fir is the customer favorite, but can be challenging to grow. “Each variety has issues,” she said. “We can only grow Fraser fir where we have deer fence; it’s finicky in wet soil and the pH has to be just right.”
Latching on to a common trend, Stokoe Farms opens for Christmas the week prior to Thanksgiving. “The week before Thanksgiving is busier than the week before Christmas,” said Suzanne. “People have relatives coming for Thanksgiving and kids are home from college. Thanksgiving weekend is our biggest weekend, so opening early helps us get up and running. It also helps spread out customers and allows time to train employees for the Christmas season. People who are serious about getting a Christmas tree are willing to come out early and get the first choice of trees.”
The Stokoes are members of the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York and the National Christmas Tree Association. Suzanne said the national Checkoff has been valuable in funding research and media outreach and providing the latest information on consumer trends.
Stokoe Farms supports the Christmas Spirit Foundation’s Trees for Troops project by providing trees and serving as a drop-off point for trees. “Every year there’s more and more demand for military families who need a tree,” said Suzanne. “We encourage people to donate through a local farm or through the national association. It’s a program that’s been near and dear to our hearts, and it’s our farm charity.”
While the tradition of having a real Christmas tree may have been fading, Suzanne said the silver lining in the pandemic is reconnecting with the younger generation who are interested in real trees and will keep the tradition going.
Visit Stokoe Farms online at stokoefarms.com.