Grow­ing ‘O Tan­nen­baum’

Stanstead Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Vic­to­ria Vanier, Way's Mills

It’s that time of year again, when Cana­di­ans across the coun­try get ready to carry out a very old and rather odd tra­di­tion when you re­ally think about it: putting up a Christ­mas tree. Although mil­lions of cul­ti­vated Christ­mas trees are sold across North Amer­ica ev­ery year, many peo­ple don’t re­al­ize

the amount of care and at­ten­tion each tree needs to reach Yule­tide per­fec­tion, so green and full that hang­ing Christ­mas or­na­ments on them can be chal­leng­ing.

A good source of in­for­ma­tion when it comes to grow­ing beau­ti­ful Christ­mas trees proved to be Christian Vanasse, of Way’s Mills, who grew up in the Christ­mas tree grow­ing business and now sells about 20,000 trees a year through his fam­ily company, Vanasse Farm Prod­ucts.

“It takes about four­teen years to grow a Christ­mas tree,” ex­plained Mr. Vanasse at his Way’s Mills farm where thou­sands of wrapped Christ­mas trees, each one graded for size, qual­ity and type, stood hud­dled in group­ings while half a dozen men, in­clud­ing two of Christian’s sons, busily loaded them onto a flatbed trailer. Most of his trees head down to cus­tomers in Con­necti­cut, Mas­sachusetts, New Jersey and Long Is­land, New York.

First, seeds are col­lected from the ma­ture trees in the Vanasse or­chard and planted. Those that grow into seedlings are trans­planted the fol­low­ing year into the ‘gar­den’. The trees are usu­ally ready to be moved to their fi­nal lo­ca­tion in the field two years later.

“In the spring, we have to start check­ing the trees for five dif­fer­ent kinds of bugs that can at­tack them. If we find some, we have to spray the trees to kill them,” said Mr. Vanasse who has three hun­dred acres of trees on his own farm, and more on the land of his three sis­ters. Some types of bugs will cause the new growth on the tree to curl up and wither.

“Another big worry in the spring is the frost on the new growth. If the new growth freezes, you have to wait two years be­fore the tree re­gains that growth and, by then, some­times the tree is too big. I’ve rid­den around the farm mist­ing the trees all night to try and pre­vent frost dam­age, but now I know where all the cold spots are on the prop­erty,” ex­plained the grower of Bal­sam and Fraser fir trees. “The buds of the Fraser fir come out two weeks early, so you have to watch them for frost, but they also come out too early for the bugs. But they don’t smell as much as the Bal­sams.”

The ac­tion on the tree farm con­tin­ues in June with fer­til­iz­ing, mow­ing and spray­ing her­bi­cides to keep the growth down at the bot­tom of the trees for good air cir­cu­la­tion. “When the trees are four feet high, we re­move the bot­tom branches. This trim­ming is very im­por­tant. Then we start prun­ing the trees in July, for about two and a half months; we have to trim ev­ery tree and the best way is with a ma­chete,” said Mr. Vanasse.

“And I start con­tact­ing our cus­tomers in July,” added Pa­tri­cia Vanasse, Christian’s sis­ter who han­dles much of the cus­tomer ser­vice, sales, book­keep­ing and over­all trou­ble-shoot­ing. “It’s sur­pris­ing, but a lot of peo­ple think the trees just grow on their own,” she added.

Next, the trees are clipped at the top, to make a nice ‘crown’, and the tree-tag­ging be­gins. “We go through ev­ery row and tag the trees that are ready for cut­ting. Each tag shows the tree’s qual­ity and what kind it is,” said Mr. Vanasse. “That way peo­ple know which trees are ready to cut and they don’t have to worry about grad­ing them too,” added Lo­gan Vanasse, one of Christian’s sons who helps out on the farm along with his brothers Gabriel, Joshua and their mom, Penny De­sain­des. The rib­bon tags are also num­bered so Christian knows if he has to try and sell more trees or if he’ll need to or­der a few to com­plete his or­ders.

The cut­ting of the trees be­gins at the end of Oc­to­ber and it’s fast and fu­ri­ous. The trees are cut and baled on a Howey baler, a ma­chine that shakes the trees first to re­move old nee­dles, and counted again. The ‘butts’ of the trees are painted with dif­fer­ent colours, ac­cord­ing to height, and then they are loaded on trail­ers to be brought to the main shipping area. “It’s im­por­tant that the trees don’t lie on the ground, es­pe­cially when you’re shipping them to the States or to Europe.”

“The first two weeks is usu­ally fun, and it went smooth this year for a while. Then I fell off the truck, from about ten feet up,” ad­mit­ted Christian. “He does some­thing like that ev­ery year,” added his sis­ter.

“I also go out on the road in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber to visit all my cus­tomers, see if they are happy with their or­ders. My fa­ther Real, who started the business in 1952, came with me re­cently and he met the grand­son of a guy who used to buy tees from him; we have three gen­er­a­tions of buy­ing and sell­ing trees with cus­tomers in the States,” said Mr. Vanasse, with pride. Real Vanasse be­gan har­vest­ing wild Christ­mas trees on the Way’s Mills prop­erty in the 1950’s. “My fa­ther used to send wild trees to Venezuela and once we filled a 747, in Mi­ami, with Christ­mas trees to send there.” Another time, they shipped the trees in con­tainer vans only the vans couldn’t de­liver their loads once they ar­rived: the Mon­treal-made vans were too high to fit un­der the bridges and over­passes on the Venezue­lan high­ways! “Back in those days, my fa­ther and my brothers to­gether were shipping about 50,000 trees a year.”

Christ­mas tree sea­son can be a stress­ful time for those in the business, and Christian’s re­cent sleep­less nights are proof of that. “I have to re­mind my­self at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son to ‘leave ev­ery­thing’ at the of­fice. I’m deal­ing with peo­ple just once or twice a year, cus­tomers who want a per­fect prod­uct even though it grows in na­ture. And our cus­tomers are re­ally stressed at this time of the year, too,” ex­plained Pa­tri­cia.

She con­tin­ued: “Once all the trees are shipped, then it’s a shock for all of us. Dur­ing our peak sea­son, none of us even knows what day it is; we only know the dates. Then, in one day, we’re walk­ing around not know­ing what to do with our­selves.”

One thing Christian looks for­ward to, after the rush, is watch­ing the fam­i­lies come to his farm to cut their own trees for Christ­mas. “Fam­i­lies come here year after year,” he said. He’s also look­ing for­ward to har­vest­ing his own hy­brid trees in two years, which he be­gan work­ing on about ten years ago with his fa­ther. “It should grow faster, keep its nee­dles longer, and be eas­ier to trim. Ev­ery breeder is try­ing to grow the per­fect tree – it gives us some­thing to think about in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary.”

When asked about the Vanasse fam­ily’s own Christ­mas tree tra­di­tion, Christian replied: “All five of us go out to pick the tree.” “There can be dis­agree­ments some­times, and so it might be a prob­lem, this year, be­cause one of my brothers won’t be here, to break a tie vote,” said Lo­gan, who had come into the of­fice with Joshua to warm up. But one thing is cer­tain: the tree will be a beauty, close to per­fec­tion and fif­teen feet tall!

“What was re­ally nice was when we were cut­ting Christ­mas trees, last year, and the boys re­al­ized that they were cut­ting trees that they had planted,” com­mented Christian.

Stu­dio Ge­orgeville:

Teddy bear by Anne Bruce Fal­coner.

Photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

Seen here at the Vanasse Christ­mas tree farm in Way’s Mills are (l. to r.) Real Vanasse, who founded the business in 1952, Christian Vanasse, Lo­gan Vanasse and Pa­tri­cia Vanasse.

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