Birds & Blooms
Christmas Spirit That Grows & Grows
A THIRD-GENERATION VERMONT TREE FARMER CELEBRATES THE HOLIDAYS WITH A HARVEST.
Celebrate the holidays along with a third-generation tree farmer.
My family Christmas memories include my grandmother running a cash box, my parents making wreaths and garlands, and my siblings and me leading customers into fields to help them find the perfect tree. Werner Tree Farm sits on the edge of Middlebury, Vermont, and has about 20,000 trees of a dozen or so species spread out over 36 acres. The farm got its start when my grandfather Fred Werner gave my parents 13 tiny Scotch pines left over from a tree planting project of his own. Over the years, the business has branched out to include mail-order fresh wreaths, maple syrup, honey and custom greenery. From those original 13 trees, our family operation has grown into one of the most popular cut-your-own tree farms in the state.
Farming is hard work, but we love growing and selling trees as a family. Each spring and early summer, we plant saplings to replace those that were cut in the winter. In summer and fall, we trim and shape each tree with our shearing knives. In November, we convert my father’s wood shop into a Christmas store. From the week before Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, our lives revolve around preparing and selling evergreens.
We begin the selling season by heading to the mountains to gather brush for wreaths and garlands and to harvest trees for our precut racks. The whole family, along with a hired crew of elves, spends a few long days harvesting—often through cold, rain or snow. We bring more than 500 balsam and Fraser fir trees down from the mountains, plus a couple tons of balsam boughs.
Then my mother and I start making and decorating over 500 wreaths. That’s a lot of early days and late nights drinking cocoa and listening to Christmas music on the radio. Because we’re so busy, we don’t have Christmas customs such as ice skating parties, caroling or watching The Nutcracker together. But we do have one unique Christmas treecutting tradition.
It started when my sister, Jessie, and I were maybe 10 and our brother, William, was 13. It had been a busy year, and my parents hadn’t gotten around to putting up our Christmas tree. Jessie, William and I decided we’d waited long enough, and couldn’t leave it up to our parents. All three of us regularly helped customers cut down and carry trees back from the field, so we decided we could do the same for ourselves.
We waited for our parents to go to bed before tiptoeing down the stairs. After putting on our coats and boots, we walked down the driveway with a bow saw and flashlight. My sister had seen a balsam-fraser hybrid earlier that day while helping a customer, and she assured us it was the only one that would do.
We took turns cutting in the moonlight, and then my brother and I picked up the trunk while my sister carried the tip. The walk home felt longer, and the exhilaration of being out after dark faded as the tree got heavier. As we started to climb the steep hill near our driveway, a car passed us. It slowed but didn’t stop, so we kept walking. By the time we reached the driveway, we were joking about how it must’ve looked like we were stealing a tree in the middle of the night. The house stayed dark as we got the tree standing before going to bed, quite pleased with ourselves.
The next morning, however, we learned that a concerned neighbor had called the police about a tree thief. Our parents had been awake and aware of what we were up to the whole time. Since then, it’s become a tradition for us kids to set up the tree after our parents go to bed. We’re grown now and my siblings have moved away, so we’ve had to move our outing to Thanksgiving to make sure we’re all there for the nighttime excursion. The variety of Christmas tree we choose may change from year to year— although we all remain partial to that balsam smell. The walk home always takes us back to our childhood spent among the trees. •