by Sally Colby
When the economy gets rough, savvy business owners figure out ways to keep going. Jim Gehlsen was a masonry contractor for more than 30 years, but when the economy tanked in 2008, he had some decisions to make. “I hung in,” he said, “but it got worse and worse. I thought, I have the farm and it’s a tight economy, so I’ll grow food and sell it for less than it would cost at the supermarket.” But food wasn’t the first crop Jim grew.
Jim and his wife Jean purchased their Nokesville, VA farm in 1983, and started growing Christmas trees and hay the following year. While he was waiting for his trees to grow large enough to market, Jim visited other Christmas tree farms to see what he liked and didn’t like. “One thing I saw is that a lot of farms didn’t have adequate parking,” he said. “People were parking next to a field, getting stuck, having to push cars out.”
Trees at Evergreen Acres are sold choose and cut; priced according to tree type. “A lot of people sell trees by the foot, but there are problems with that,” said Jim. “You have to haggle at checkout — is it a seven foot tree or an eight foot tree? And not every tree is perfect — if a tree is flawed, the bigger it gets, the more of a bargain it is. People want four good sides, and they’ll check a tree all 360 degrees. But they feel like they got a bargain if they find a tall tree with one flawed side because that side will go against a wall.”
One of the first varieties Jim grew was Scotch pine, but he stopped planting them about six years ago. “Every tree has its issues,” said Jim. “With Scotch pine, it’s gall (pine gall rust). It gets in the branches and puts a knot in the branches, which puts out spores in spring and wicks its way from one field to the next. After a while, the knot will kill the branch and then there’s a big brown spot there.”
Scotch pine must be scouted regularly for sawfly, so Jim checks those trees frequently, about once a week, throughout July, August and September. “I don’t see the sawfly when I’m mowing, but I can see the little green and white larvae on the needles,” he said. “They’ll completely denude a branch. Since I need to scout every week but only need to mow between the rows once a month, I’ll mow every third row and take a small spray can out with me. I can see both sides of the tree, and it cuts down on walking, and I’m not killing the beneficial insects.”
The most popular tree among customers is white pine. “It’s a common, ordinary tree, but it shapes up well and holds its shape,” said Jim. “It doesn’t have a lot of pests. When I first started growing in the early 1980s, fusarium root disease hit the mid-Atlantic area, and some growers lost about a third of their pines. A borer gets in the trunk, and the borer doesn’t necessarily kill the tree but it takes a fungus in. If I find a tree that has it, I pull it out.”
When it’s time to establish new trees, Jim plants 2-0 trees; which have spent two years in a seedling bed. “I’ve found that the bigger the seedling, the lower the survival rate,” he said. “I have about 99 percent survival with the 2-0s. What hurts the most for young trees is early summer drought – no rain in May or June.”
Like most Christmas tree growers, Jim deals with deer damage; mostly to the white pines. “They like having an open hole on the tree,” he said. “If deer rub a tree, I leave it so they have that to rub on. They like having an open hole to rub. Deer also destroy the buds for next year’s branches. “If deer eat the buds out of the top, those are gone and it ruins the leader. If there are buds on the side branches, they’ll tighten up and grow and become the new leader.”
Jim believes it’s important to sell a holiday experience and offers hot mulled cider for customers as well as services such as a tree shaker, a baler and assistance with loading trees. He has three balers (18”, 20” and 23”) to accommodate various trees of different sizes. Customers can use bamboo poles marked with electrical tape at 8’, 9’ and 10’ to measure trees for a good estimate of whether a tree will fit in their home.
The vegetable enterprise was added in 2008, the year Jim decided to grow food. “I promoted the idea through my Christmas tree business,” he said. “I printed survey forms to find out which vegetables people would be interested in. That gave me an email list, and I started growing three acres of vegetables in 2010.
Jim found the best market for the amount of vegetables he was growing would be local grocery stores. “I contacted a major chain store,” he said. “The produce buyer didn’t have a local organic grower. He told me that if I became GAP certified and organic certified, he’d buy every tomato I could grow.”
There were several acres of land where Jim had taken trees out, and it hadn’t been sprayed or fertilized, so he was able to use that immediately for certified organic production. Additional ground was in transition for three years. The first produce buyer only purchased about half of what Jim grew, so he approached another chain and was successful in making a sale.
“My customers are mostly women,” said Jim. “I’ll talk with them during pumpkin or Christmas tree sales, or at meet-the-farmer at the grocery store. What the customer wants and what the produce manager wants isn’t always the same. The produce manager wants a tomato that’s as big as a grapefruit, but the customer doesn’t always want that size. They want a nice, medium sized tomato. There’s a big disconnect there.”
Part of Jim’s strategy for plant nutrition includes maintaining a ground cover and the use of compost. Area horse farms deliver manure to Evergreen Acres, and he also receives wood chips for composting. He noted that P and K are low in one Christmas tree field, and he’ll use composted manure to correct that deficiency. “Trees do best on marginal soil,” said Jim, “but the ground cover will help. In some areas I have trouble with woody weeds like poison ivy, and I’m hoping that by changing the pH I can knock the weeds out and the grass will take over.”
Evergreen Farm is adjacent to Cedar Run, a 40-mile long tributary stream of the Occoquan River, and Jim can pull water for irrigation. But being close to the water also means potential flooding, so Jim maintains swales and cover crops.
In 2014, Jim and Jean Gehlsen received the Clean Water Farm award from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. The award is given to a Prince William County farmer who establishes conservation practices that maintain water quality.
Providing a memorable experience for customers
by Sally Colby