Bay State families glad to pay to cut their Christmas tree

By Amy Bracken
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2009

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MARLBOROUGH - On a bright, cold recent Saturday, cars jammed the parking lot at The Tree Farm. Families and couples entered a makeshift basement gift shop, where they were greeted by owners Jen and Jay Field and their friendly black lab.

The customers checked in and set out past the chicken coop and into the snowy woods, on a hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. Whatever they felled would cost them $55.

A one-minute drive down the road, Walmart was selling 9-foot Balsams from Nova Scotia for $20. The supply had clearly been depleted, but on this afternoon the pen of bundled cut trees on the edge of the vast parking lot felt abandoned.

In Massachusetts, a growing number of Christmas tree buyers are shunning the more common imported trees in favor of locally grown ones. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s farm census, taken every five years, Massachusetts growers sold some 76,000 Christmas trees in 2007, up by more than 3,000 since 2002.

For buyers, it is a way to support local farms and a fun family outing that lets them pick and cut down their own tree, even though it generally costs more than offerings at chain stores or roadside lots.

“Cut-your-own tree farms have kind of had a resurgence,’’ said Jen Field, a high school teacher who spends her weekends and vacations working with her husband on the 50-year-old, 6-acre Marlborough farm, about 30 miles west of Boston. “It’s really grown in the last four or five years.’’

And she believes it is not a passing trend.

“It becomes a tradition,’’ she said. “One family started coming with their toddler, who is now out of college, and they still all come. In some families, three generations come [to the farm] together.’’

Scott Soares, the state’s agriculture commissioner, says that Massachusetts is seeing a strong movement in support of local farms of all types, evident in the recent popularity of farmers’ markets.

But Christmas trees are a special case. “It’s agritourism, a good staycation-type activity,’’ Soares said.

Cut-your-own trees tend to cost at least twice as much as those trucked in from such places as Canada or North Carolina. But at $50 to $60 for a medium-to-large tree, Soares points out, cutting your own could be cheaper than a family outing to the movies, with popcorn.

But it is also entertaining, families say. At The Tree Farm, the Fields issue customers colored ribbons to take with them on their hunt to mark the tree of their choice. Only then do they return to the house for tools.

“We don’t want people wandering around with saws,’’ Jen said. With help from the Fields, buyers cut, drag, and bundle trees and tie them on their cars.

“It’s so much nicer to be outside,’’ Margriet Morris of Sudbury said as she marched into the woods with her husband, Richard, to pick a tree. They had been buying Canadian pines from a local retail lot for years. But this December they decided to rekindle a cut-your-own tradition they had when their children were young, in part because they grew tired of their trucked-in trees losing their needles and looking decrepit soon after coming into their home.

Some buyers say their local trees last into February. One of the Fields’ customers likes to decorate hers with hearts for Valentine’s Day.

Farmgoers tend to be emphatic and dedicated. The Fields said one woman drove an hour from Boston to buy a 14-foot concolor (or white) fir, strapped it to her compact car, then drove two hours to Woods Hole to catch a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.

Tree farmer Sighle Philbin explained the attraction this way: “When you take your child [to a tree farm], that might be the only farm experience they’ll ever have. How many dairy farms are left in Massachusetts?’’

It takes upward of seven years for an evergreen to reach marketable size and up to 15 years to become a large tree. Many cut-your-own farms run out of trees as early as the day after Thanksgiving. But some farms are expanding, and new ones are cropping up.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the amount of land set aside for growing Christmas trees in Massachusetts increased from 2,950 acres in 2002 to 3,160 in 2007.

At Philbin’s 18-acre French Hill Farm in West Boylston, she and her optician husband have created a winter wonderland farm experience, complete with hay rides and an Arabian horse who gives kisses in exchange for candy canes.

Inside their salvaged 200-year old barn, an orphaned rabbit named Harry Potter chewed pine needles under a tree decorated with china ornaments made by the Philbins’ daughter, while their 6-month-old grandson beamed from a manger-like basket by a blazing fire.

Even with the rise in popularity, tree farming in Massachusetts is not making people rich. “It would be more profitable to sell off the land to developers,’’ Philbin said.

And she laments that she is unable to take full advantage of the increased interest. She and her husband do not have the manpower to plant trees on more than three quarters of their farm, and they cannot afford help. As a result, they ran out of medium-size trees by mid-December.

“I don’t know if we could ever really meet demand,’’ she said.