by Sally Colby
When Jane and Fritz Neubauer purchased an established Christmas tree farm about four years ago, growing trees wasn’t a completely new concept to them. Fritz is a certified arborist and has owned a tree service since the late 1990s.
“We bought it from the family who started it,” said Jane, referring to Glen and Carol Battles, who sold the farm to the Neubauers in 2012. “They were very helpful to us in making the transition, and they’re available for support.”
Jane recalls driving by the Chesterland, Ohio farm and admiring the beautiful Christmas tree fields, and thought it would be fun to have a Christmas tree farm. “Trees aren’t a new thing to us, but Christmas trees and operating a cut-your-own is new,” she said. “My background is in marketing and business planning, so it’s a good fit. But there has still been a lot to learn.”
The Battles coached the Neubauers through some of the most critical aspects of operating a tree farm. “Before we closed on the farm, we helped plant trees the previous spring,” said Jane. “They let us work side-by-side in the field with them and conveyed everything they could about Christmas tree farming. When we had our first sale season in November, they came back to town and helped us through the first week.”
The 100-acre farm includes about 25 to 30 acres of trees. “We have about 25,000 trees in the ground right now,” said Jane. “We focus on four varieties: Fraser fir, Canaan fir, blue spruce and Norway spruce. We’ve chosen to not grow pines mostly because pines are prone to more pest issues.”
Jane says that one challenge in growing Christmas trees is being aware of what people will like with a crop that has a seven to 10 year rotation. “We don’t have the benefit of being flexible to plant what people want right now,” she said. “Ohio State University did a lot of research to develop the most ideal fir tree for the Ohio climate. We’ve found that the most popular tree here, and for other farms in the area, is fir. Fraser fir is the most popular. We’re fortunate that we can grow Frasers here, but they’re finicky. Canaan firs are similar to Fraser firs and easier to grow, so we plant a lot more of those than Frasers. They’re hard to tell apart from Frasers, and have the same ‘look’ with similar needles and sturdy branches.” To meet customer demand, the Neubauers bring in some cut trees from other local farms.
In addition to fresh-cut trees, Sugar Pines offers B&Bs, some of which are sold in spring and fall as landscape trees. “There are people who definitely want a B&B tree,” said Jane. “They wouldn’t consider anything else. We sell a lot of them to younger people who think it’s a better choice than a fake tree but they don’t want to cut a tree down.” Jane stresses the importance of teaching customers how to properly care for a B&B tree. “If the tree doesn’t live, we’ll probably never see that customer again,” she said. The Neubauers provide a list of instructions, and Fritz tries to talk with as many B&B buyers as he can to optimize their chance of success.
Tabletop size trees are another option that’s growing in popularity. “They’re great for people who have tiny spaces or don’t want to deal with putting up a large tree,” said Jane. “We’ll put a three or four foot tree in a tiny stand, put a red bow on it and people love them.” Customers can also purchase pine roping, wreaths, swags and other decorations made from greens. The Neubauers purchase undecorated wreaths and add simple decorations such as bows and pinecones.
Prior to the season, in late September and October, the Neubauers measure each tree, then tag each one with the height and price. With trees marked in the field, there’s no confusion about the height or variety. “Measuring and marking trees is labor-intensive,” said Jane, “but it removes the potential for negotiation at purchase time. People might cut an eight foot tree a foot shorter because they want a seven foot tree.”
This year, customers will have more than 2,000 trees to choose from. Most of the other items available for sale are directly related to Christmas trees, including tree stands, bags and preservatives for water.
When Sugar Pines opens for the season, there’s someone on hand to greet each customer. “We ask them if they want to cut a tree or one that’s already cut,” said Jane. “Then we send them to the right parking lot. We have an area set up with another greeter who has saws and wagons and who can direct them to the field. We have a lot of signage but have found that people almost never read signs.” Customers can have their tree shaken and netted, and the Neubauers will supply twine for securing trees to vehicles. Jane says the iPad Square POS system makes it easy for both customers and staff to handle credit card transactions in the field or at the main barn.
Sugar Pines Farm’s primary mode of advertising is social media. “Because this is such a visual business, social media works well,” said Jane. “Instagram really helps too. We don’t even have to do any work – people do the work for us by taking great pictures of their family and the farm and posting with our name on them.”
“It’s such a fun business,” said Jane. “It’s a lot more work than we thought, but people are generally happy when they’re here. They’re having a good time with their family and they’re here for a happy reason, and we get to be a part of so many families’ memories and traditions.”
Visit Sugar Pines Tree Farm online at www.sugarpinesfarm.com.
New Christmas tree growers benefit from others’ experience
by Sally Colby