by Sally Colby
Rick Doyle was busy hosting the summer meeting of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association at Family Tree Farm in Red Lion, the family farm he and his wife Karen operate, but he took some time as the meeting closed to talk about what he has learned over the course of 20 years growing Christmas trees. Rick started small but is now growing close to 50 acres of trees on the 115-acre farm.
“One thing we did right at a pivotal time is that we started to plant a lot of trees,” said Rick. “We started out with two acres, then added more and more. I went to the Penn State Christmas Tree Management Short Course three times and found out we did the right thing.”
In looking back, Rick says there are some things he wishes he had done differently. He noted that a lot of other choose-and-cut growers in the area have gone out of business and if he had seen that coming, he would have planted more trees and been more prepared to meet the needs of area customers seeking choose-and-cut trees.
Over the years, Rick has become more aware of variations in weather patterns. “We’ve had two or three years where we had six-week droughts,” he said. “It was really dry and we lost a lot of small trees. I wish we had laid irrigation for those times. But now we have irrigation for everything. My son Matt is interested in the business and we’re looking at 10 years out now. We laid irrigation to make sure we can fill that gap.”
Family Tree Farm grows Fraser fir, Douglas fir, concolor fir and blue spruce. Trees are priced by variety and customers have an opportunity to see the various tree types prior to heading to the field. The wagons go to specific fields, so people stepping onto a wagon know which trees will be available. Each tractor pulls two wagons — one for customers directly behind the tractor and another wagon for cut trees.
As customers prepare to board the wagons, Rick is there to greet them wearing the same hat he has worn for the past 20 years. He says that people recognize him as “the man with the hat” so he believes it’s important to be the greeter. He also hands them an apple from the farm’s orchard — one of many connections he makes throughout the year to keep customers coming back. “They love having apples on the wagon,” he said. “I talk with them and hand them an apple as they get on the wagon. We give away about four or five bins of apples every year.”
Rick says that one safety measure he initiated is to have a rider (employee) on every wagon who’s responsible for making sure everyone is properly seated prior to departure. The rider signals the driver when everyone is seated and there are no people or obstacles that would hinder the safe operation and travel of the tractor and wagons. Rick has also taken great care to create safe wagon lanes. “Wagons don’t go off the stone paths, which cuts down on mud,” he said. “Customers can drag trees to the wagon or use a sled.”
When wagons are out in the fields, Rick is in constant communication with the tractor drivers so he knows where the wagons are and can prevent back-ups at the point of service. Once a wagon returns, getting customers’ trees processed and moved to their vehicles is the priority. “People get off the wagon and their tree comes down the hill,” said Rick. “It slows up a little bit outside because the trees go on sleds, then they stop here (at the barn) and I make sure none of the sleds are going down the hill to the parking lot without stopping. They come in here, pay for their tree and we have a few people in the parking lot handling traffic.” Offering a credit card payment option is another good move Rick says has paid off — people will often pick up another wreath, more roping and a box of apples if they aren’t tied to using cash.
Conscientious employees in the field are key to making sure everyone ends up with the tree they cut. “They all have magic markers behind their ears,” said Rick, describing how employees identify trees. “The initials of the person who belongs to that tree go on the bottom of that stump as fast as possible, so no matter where they are, that customer is not going to lose their tree. There’s no chance for any kind of confusion.”
The farm has three balers and Rick says it’s well worth having multiples. Trees are priced as they go through the baler — the baler operators know the prices — and customers take their tag inside, pay and collect their tree to take to their car. Rick says that some customers will request a tree not be baled, but most realize that it will be easier to get a baled tree inside their home.
Drilling is also available, but since it takes extra time and everyone would probably say “yes” if asked if they want their tree drilled, Rick figured out an alternative: When people come in on the wagons, the person on the wagon holds up a Stand Strait tree stand and says “does anyone on the wagon have a stand like this?”
“If people raised their hand, we segregate and drill those trees and let everyone else move through so we don’t get hung up trying to figure out which ones to drill,” said Rick. “Some people get curious about it and that’s where we have a chance to sell the stand. We also started shaking trees and that has been well-received.”
For those who prefer a pre-cut tree, prices are just slightly higher. Rick will high-cut the imperfect Fraser firs and bring them in as pre-cut trees, which helps empty the fields. “Later in the season, people don’t seem to care about whether a tree is perfect,” said Rick. “And lately, we’ve had a lot of people come in and say they want a Charlie Brown tree, something that looks left behind.”
Shortly after Christmas, Rick cuts off any remaining tall stumps, then a custom operator grinds stumps to prepare the fields for the next crop. Each field will be used for growing pumpkins or sweet corn for a few years before being replanted in Christmas trees. Rick says that emptying a field, grinding the stumps and following with a lime application pays off.
Rick says his seasonal employees are all willing to pitch in wherever they’re needed without a lot of direction, which helps keep things moving smoothly. “We really work hard to get people in from the field, their tree through the baler, out and down to the parking lot and moving on,” said Rick. “They seem to appreciate that.” Although the staff doesn’t tie trees to vehicles for customers, Rick noted that the abundance of SUVs and pickup trucks means the majority of trees leave the farm safely and without having to be tied.
While the Doyles don’t make wreaths themselves, they purchase fresh wreaths and decorate them. “Last year we brought them in from North Carolina and they were really nice,” said Rick. “I found that I enjoy decorating wreaths and spend a few hours a day during the week decorating them. Roping has gotten popular too, and we also sell swags and grave blankets. We load up on those items once and they’re usually gone in a week or two.”
Family Tree Farm has several methods of bringing customers to the farm. One advantage is their existing customer base that comes in summer for produce, then in fall for apples, pumpkins and a corn maze. The Christmas tree fields are easily visible to those who visit for fall activities.
Since Rick has been in the real estate business for 40 years, he has learned the power of online searches, meta tags and key words. The farm has had a website since the beginning and provides information about produce, fall activities and Christmas trees.
Family Farm is involved in the community, which helps to keep their name in front of customers. “We give several trees away through silent auctions and raffles,” said Rick. “We have a mailing list of 4,000 names and send out one postcard every year. We started giving away a $200 shopping spree 20 years ago. All the people at the cash register know to encourage customers to fill out the slip for it and it has their address. Soon we’ll only do it by email.”