by Sally Colby
Rodney and Lynn Martinez are new to farming, but not new to hard work. Rodney retired from the Coast Guard in 2016 and Lynn is an Army veteran. The couple met in in Massachusetts, and despite frequent moves around the country, Rodney said he always wanted to return to New England and have a farm.
“When we lived in Oregon, Lynn had a successful garden, and my father has always been a gardener,” said Rodney. “We wanted to be closer to family, so we moved to New Hampshire.” The Martinezes purchased Willow Pond Farm in Sanbornton, NH, which was an established Christmas tree farm and well known in the community. The farm has been under the care of several owners in recent years, and Rodney said it’s been a lot of work to learn how to grow Christmas trees. “It was a lot of work to bring the Christmas trees back into shape,” he added. “Just learning how to grow Christmas trees was a lot.”
The couple moved to the farm right before Christmas, so they had an entire year to prepare for their first season. A former owner mentored the couple as they learned about growing Christmas trees. “What we found the first year is that people want to haggle prices,” said Rodney. “They want the experience of cutting their own tree for the same price as a big box store sells trees.” Rodney said that became a challenge because he’s still getting established and financing equipment.
The farm is home to quite a few Korean firs, and Rodney enjoys growing the species. “They have such beautiful color, but we have to prune them differently than balsams,” he said. “We also grow Fraser-Balsam crosses, which is a sturdy tree everyone likes. We have Nordmann firs, a fantastic tree for greens and roping, and Russian firs.” They also grow some white pines, which are good for wreaths and roping.
Since purchasing the farm, Rodney has added about 600 new trees, mostly Korean fir and Fraser x Balsam. “We have a large inventory of trees between five feet and seven feet,” said Rodney. “But there’s a big gap because we have a lot of smaller trees.”
Rodney said the U-cut farms in his area are somewhat competitive and retain customers from year to year. “As some tree farms go out of business, others pop up,” he said. “I considered adding more trees this past spring, but inventory was going fast and I was waiting for seedlings to be available. Seedling shipments were halted due to the border closing. Then after February, everything shut down.”
Last year, Rodney invited customers to come to the farm to tag trees ahead of the season to help gain some of the local market. “I also brought in some pre-cut trees,” he said, “but only sold 40% of them. People want six- to seven-foot trees, but I have huge trees that are 12 to 25 feet tall. They’re beautiful trees, but selling those is not cost effective, so I started looking at alternatives.”
He admitted some of the aspects of operating a Christmas tree farm came as a surprise, including offering wreaths. “The way people generally buy wreaths is through fundraisers,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense for us to mass produce wreaths, but we do make some, and we make some roping. People can see what we have on our website and order what they want.”
Insufficient Christmas tree inventory on the farm and difficulty obtaining seedlings for new plantings spurred Rodney to consider ways to add diversity to the farm. One of his new ventures will be growing seedlings hydroponically. “I’d like to provide local growers with the trees they need instead of having to go to Canada for seedlings,” he said. “It will require less soil management and less digging and planting.” Rodney and a business partner are working with companies in the Netherlands to experiment with different substrates suitable for hydroponic Christmas tree seedlings.
“Hydroponics is a growing industry now, so we’re looking at a facility that others can visit to see how to structure one,” said Rodney. “Fir seedlings will be grown for two years hydroponically then moved outside for hardening and growth monitoring.” He plans to use an agronomist for advice as he experiments with plant nutrition and seedling culture.
Another venture in the works for Willow Pond Farm is essential oils. “We’re looking at different fir products,” said Rodney. “We want to provide people an opportunity to notice the difference between various fir trees.” Rodney said the NH Farmers Association has been helpful in providing information about value-added options.
With COVID-19 restrictions and uncertainty about how the upcoming season will go, Rodney is hoping for a quiet, family-oriented experience for those who visit the farm. After spending the summer hand shearing every tree on the farm, Rodney said, “Every tree I look at reminds me of Christmas and where that tree is going. I enjoy seeing familiar faces from the community, and I love spending time with them on the farm. We want to make it special for families and give them personal time here.”
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