by Laura Rodley
High on the slopes of Ashfield, MA, is a plentitude of Christmas trees first planted by Al Pieropan. It’s not a plantation of Christmas trees with trees planted in rows – Pieropan planted his Balsam firs in little pockets and on the borders of over 10 acres of four properties that he owned (three that had houses and one that is an empty lot). He trimmed his trees in such a way that each tree was not cut off at the base, but higher up on the stump to keep the remaining stump alive and to encourage a process calling coppicing, where trees grow back on the stump, with two to three trees per stump.
The advantage of this is the time factor. One stump could have a tree cut from it after eight years and have a second tree already growing and ready to go in two years’ time. The resulting stumps festooned with hardy growing trees resemble trees out a fairy tale. Also like a fairy tale, Pieropan had four daughters – and none of them had any interest in being farmers.
Enter Emmet Van Driesche. He and his wife were tenants in one of the three houses that Pieropan rented. They moved in in 2008, and by the end of 2009, they started working with Pieropan.
“We moved in at the height of the Great Recession, and there weren’t a lot of jobs. Pieropan wanted someone to take over the farm. We took it over in stages, which allowed him six or seven years, doing the work and to ease out of it. We took over five acres for starters, then one or two acres per year. Over four or five years, this allowed him to step away gradually, and finally release all of it to us,” said Van Driesche. They leased the land from him. Pieropan had started the Christmas Tree farm in Ashfield in 1955. The time it took between when he began turning the tree business over until he passed away nine years later, in 2018, is a little over the length of time it takes a Christmas tree to grow.
Van Driesche manages and cuts the trees from the three properties that have houses on them to sell wholesale. From Thanksgiving on, people drive up and purchase their pre-cut tree. Others can have a U-cut experience on the five-acre tree lot. Over a season, he sells 500 to 600 trees and ties 500 to 600 wreaths.
The last 13 years have been a continuing adventure. “I like so many things about it. It’s like selling ice cream. People are happy to be with their families, be out on an outing choosing their tree. It’s great to be around that kind of energy,” Van Driesche said. “It’s really a privilege to have saved and carried on for the future this tradition. It suits me. It’s manual labor. It’s not fussy. I self-employ really well.”
The skirts that grow around the stumps need to be harvested to keep the paths clear. This creates further economic value, as he bales up the Balsam skirts into 50-pound bales. He then fashions the salvaged Balsam skirts as wreaths or sachets or sells the bales to other wreath makers.
Ideally, if he manages a stump really well, two or three trees in various stages of growth can grow on the same stump. When one tree is cut, the eight year time period for another tree to be ready for harvest grown in the same footprint is shortened to half the time or less. Each stump throws out many more sprouts or shoots than it needs. Culling out that thicket of sprouts every two to three years allows the full-size trees to mature on the stump. Van Driesche noted that not all the stumps are equally healthy; some are healthier than others.
“Essentially it’s a forest, not a plantation of trees, with an extremely complex ecosystem. I cut down the deciduous trees that come back up. There’s lots of separate ecosystems, so we never get an outbreak of something that likes only Balsam,” he said. Because of the way Pieropan set out the trees, “our farm is one big hedge row and ditch.”
The farm is not certified organic, but he doesn’t treat the trees with anything. “In plantations of trees, stress can wipe out seedlings. If a stump dies, I stressed it out by cutting the branches back too much; I caused the problem,” he said.
When he’s not managing the trees, he’s carving spoons out of local wood, with a waiting list of buyers. Right now he’s using black cherry from a tree that they had taken down on his property in Conway, MA. His two girls are now old enough to help him out a little on the farm. He has written a book about his story of taking over the farm coupled with practical wisdom: “Carving Out a Living on the Land: Lessons in Resourcefulness and Craft from an Unusual Christmas Tree Farm” from Chelsea Green Publishing. For more information, visit pieropantrees.com.