by Sally Colby
Ron and Lori Sewell know a thing or two about growing crops. They’ve been successfully growing everything from strawberries to Christmas trees for more than 30 years in Carroll County, Maryland.
“We planted strawberries at the same time we planted our first Christmas trees,” recalls Lori Sewell. “That was in 1982. We started selling Christmas trees in 1984 — they came from another farm we had nearby. We sold cut trees and told people that we were planting and they could come back in six or seven years to cut their own.” The Sewells also offered PYO pumpkins in the early 1980s for a couple of years but stopped growing them because they were so involved in planting trees.
Today, the Sewells have about 60 acres in Christmas trees; 45 or 50 acres of which are u-cut. Every year, the Sewells plant trees — they planted 16,000 trees last spring. Although the majority of trees they sell from the farm are for average size homes, their specialty is mature large trees, mostly nine to 16 feet but some as tall as 20 to 24 feet for churches, offices, town centers and homes with cathedral ceilings. “It’s a niche market,” said Lori. “It’s hard to handle a tree that size. They’re mostly Fraser fir, but we’ll also have some tall Norway spruce and Douglas fir.”
They’ve tried growing Nordmann fir but they’re not sure they’d plant them again because they’re slow growing. Concolor fir is the species that’s gaining in popularity, so the Sewells are growing them. “They’re very drought-tolerant so they do well in the dry ground here,” said Lori. “But people are cutting them at eight feet, so we’re trying to stay ahead by planting more each year.”
Ron and Lori have seen the trends in customer preferences for Christmas trees and the current trend is open trees which are good for displaying ornaments. “Years ago, we may have cut out those trees that were open and narrow, thinking they weren’t desirable,” said Lori. “Now they’re very desirable. With the trees I put in the store, I can use a whole foot between the branches just to show off the ornaments.”
Ron says that in Christmas tree meetings he’s attended, he’s hearing more and more talk about creating open trees. “People will ask for a Charlie Brown tree or ask if there’s an area of the field that we don’t shear,” he said. “It isn’t that we don’t shear, because we always tip back the top or sides that stick out, but we’re shearing a lot less. We’re trying to encourage the tree to grow faster and get tall. Another practice we’ve started is throwing some urea nitrogen under the tree so the tree is more green at the time we cut it.”
Sewell’s Farm Christmas tree customers can choose from among the many Fraser fir, Douglas fir, Concolor fir, Canaan fir, blue spruce, Norway spruce or white pine on the farm. Customers are welcome to go to the fields and cut their own or can choose a freshly cut tree from the lot. In addition to cut trees, Sewell’s offers a selection of B&B trees including blue spruce, Norway spruce, Serbian spruce, Concolor fir and white pine. Customers can also pick up assorted greenery such as roping, wreaths and arrangements. The shop on the premises is filled with seasonal décor and fall visitors can get a taste of Christmas early in the season. Ron noted that customers often browse the shop and make purchases when they’re there for pumpkins.
The Sewells offer summer vegetables on the farm with sweet corn topping the list as the biggest seller. In an effort to bridge the gap between summer and Christmas and to make the farm a more year-round destination, the Sewells have added a fall attraction. Ron’s biggest idea, and his dream, was to create a giant pumpkin on the farm.
Lori says Ron talked about the idea for two years and everyone told him it was a crazy idea. “Halloween has gotten to be such a big holiday,” said Lori. “We know about six other growers in Maryland who are doing a fantastic business in fall. But we already have people coming, we have parking and we just expanded that.”
As they planned their fall features, the Sewells kicked around a lot of ideas, listened to other ideas and came up with an admission price which includes the pumpkin house, sunflower maze, pumpkin field, hayride and scavenger hunt throughout the farm. Lori says the sunflower maze was an original idea they came up with to attract people. “Being in an out-of-the-way, more northern part of the county, we have to have different things to attract people,” she said. “We don’t have apples for picking and lots of farms have pumpkins. We have sunflowers.”
As with any farming enterprise, weather plays a critical role in determining the outcome of the season. Last summer’s heat and drought brought sunflowers to bloom a lot faster than the Sewells had planned but were still in good shape for visitors during the season. When the sunflowers are finished, Ron’s hope is that birds and migratory waterfowl will clean the seeds from the fields, then he’ll plant the fields with a different crop.
The giant orange pumpkin is the main attraction, especially since it can be seen from the road. “I thought it would be smaller,” said Ron. “I wanted to be able to put it in a building during the off-season to keep it better. Then we started to think, if it was going to be big, it could be an attraction year-round.”
The pumpkin is on a concrete slab where a grain bin had been and although it looks like it can’t be moved, it can. “I’ve already visualized a Christmas tree that would be made of metal,” said Ron. “I want it to be really tall and we’d probably have to anchor that.” When it came time to select a color for the pumpkin and stem, the Sewells provided the painter with a pumpkin right out of the field for accurate color matching. At 22 feet tall and 24 feet across, the Sewells are sure their pumpkin is the largest in the county — probably in the state — and likely the east coast.
The Sewells say that in the first year with the pumpkin, they were about two months behind with the construction but had plenty of good response from visitors. “We can change the inside every year,” said Lori, “and add to the outside.”
Visit Sewell’s Farm online at www.sewellsfarm.com.
Bridging the gap with sunflowers
by Sally Colby