Jay Weir, a third-generation farmer, raises Christmas trees from tiny seeds to fragrant green maturity in Colebrook, NH, in the far north of the state – only 10 miles from the Canadian border.
“There’s a lot of processes that we’ve been doing for a long time, and there’s a lot to it. That’s the bottom line,” Weir said.
In 1946, Weir’s grandfather started planting trees purchased from the New Hampshire State Forest Nursery. The ground is rolling and very rocky, with some heavy clay soils, but overall it’s good Christmas tree ground. Weir’s father joined the enterprise when he graduated from high school.
Weir purchased the farm from his father in 2004, expanding it from its original 300 acres to its current 900 acres. He now harvests about 20,000 mature trees each year from 300 of those acres and also sells a quarter of a million saplings to other Christmas tree growers.
The first trees planted by his grandfather turned out to be a very desirable strain of Balsam fir with a very blue color to the needles. Their foliage is dense and late to bud, which means they aren’t susceptible to late frosts.
“He saved the 25 very best of those original Balsam fir trees, and that’s what we’re still using for seed on my farm today,” Weir said.
In addition to saving seed from these native firs (think of them as “mother trees”), they also harvest Fraser fir seed. Fraser fir is native to North Carolina and known for its needle retention and strong branches. Weir’s dad developed a strain of novel fir – trademarked Fralsam® – by crossing the Balsam and Fraser varieties.
More recently, Weir had been developing a variety he calls Korean x Balsam, a cross between those two firs. Korean firs are known for their needle retention, pleasant citrus smell and the “white flash” of their needles. Weir said Korean x Balsam is gaining popularity with other growers because they grow well in most climates and can handle both wet and dry conditions.
In autumn, they harvest the cones from the mother trees, drying them in the sun for several weeks until the cones easily break apart. Then they run the cones through two stages of seed cleaning equipment and send the cleaned seeds to a laboratory for germination testing. Their planting density is based on these germination rates.
During October, they plant the seeds into beds in what they call “the nursery.” Each bed is 200 feet long and three feet wide and planted very densely in rows – about 50,000 seedlings per bed.
“The freeze and thaw process of this climate breaks down the coating of those seeds, and in the spring they germinate,” said Weir.
When the seedlings reach three years old and they’re four to six inches tall, they’re lifted with a piece of equipment similar to a potato digger and moved into transplant beds formed with a bed shaper. Using a five-row transplanter with five people riding, they plant the seedlings into a six-inch-by-six-inch grid pattern where they remain until they’re five years old.
With this transplanter set-up, they can plant about 30,000 seedlings a day. Weir said, “This system allows the seedlings to laterally branch out and develop a good hearty root system in preparation for them going out into the field.”
The majority of these five-year-old trees are sold to other Christmas tree growers, but Weir plants about 20,000 trees a year on 20 acres. Some growers have mixed ages in a harvest block but because Weir relies on mechanical harvesting, he clears an entire block each season.
To prepare a block for planting, he mechanically removes the stumps and then turns the ground with a bog harrow pulled with a Caterpillar bulldozer. Next, he smooths and levels the ground with a set of five skidder tires chained together. Finally, he spreads lime and other necessary amendments.
When the field is ready for planting, he goes in with a tow-behind mechanical planter loaded with the young trees. “There’s a plow point that goes into the ground and they put the tree in the furrows as the tractor is moving. There’s wheels behind it that pull the furrow back up. It works really well,” said Weir.
Pruning, using machetes and hand clippers, begins when the trees have been in the field for two to three years. They usually start in mid-July once the new growth has fully grown and hardened off. Pruning is one of the only processes on the farm that is not mechanized because, in Weir’s opinion, it’s impossible to use an assembly line approach given the unique shape of each tree.
During years of rapid growth, the trees are also fertilized with an 18-10-12 blend, and grasses around the trees are controlled with herbicides. Weir has seven identical Kubota B2320 narrow tractors to complete this type of field work. “They’re some of the best tractors I’ve ever had. They go forever as long as you maintain them like you’re supposed to do,” he said.
Trees are finally harvested when they’re about 10 years old. To cut the trees, Weir custom built a head that attaches to the boom of a massive 50,000-lb. excavator. After harvest, each tree is run through a string baler. Post-baling, each tree is color-coded based on its height and sorted into piles. The piles are picked up with a piece of modified logging equipment and loaded onto trailers.
Sales are now exclusively wholesale to about 30 different buyers. Weir is proud that one of these customers (a Lions Club in southern New Hampshire) has been buying trees from the farm for 72 consecutive years. Prior to the pandemic, they had a mail order business, but Weir said current shipping rates are too expensive. The mail order operation also had a huge labor demand. Just the wholesale tree business demands 10 full-time employees during the growing season, and Weir keeps a handful employed doing forestry during winter.
He’s grateful for the H-2A program, which coordinates the hiring of three South African workers who work from spring through harvest. They live in an apartment on the farm. “That’s been a lifesaver for my farm,” Weir said. “If it wasn’t for them, I would have to cut my farm in half.”
By customizing every step of the growing process from seed to harvest, Weir consistently produces high quality and beautiful trees. In February 2022, Weir had already sold out of trees for the 2023 season.
“The demand for trees is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I really think it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future because tree growers as a whole are an older group, and a lot of them are getting done. It’s really creating a big shortage of trees, and it’s keeping the wholesale prices right up there where you can actually make a living comfortably,” Weir said.
With two sons, ages 13 and 16, who are beginning to work alongside their dad, there’s a chance that one of them will continue the family tree growing tradition into the fourth generation.
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin