Maine Christmas Tree Farm - Whoa Tannenbaum! | Down East - Down East
During the Depression, George Hall did everything he could to wring a living out of his 140-acre farm in the hills between Sangerville and Dover-Foxcroft. One scheme involved making cedar fence posts and hauling them down to Boston. The economy was bad everywhere, but as Abbey Bray, Hall’s great-granddaughter, tells the story, there were still fences going up in the city, keeping Hall’s Rustic Fence plenty busy.
On one winter trip to Massachusetts, Hall saw something that took him by surprise and ultimately changed the course of his business: a cluster of cut firs on the side of the road — apparently, people paid good money to buy them as Christmas trees. It was an odd sight, this little fake woodland, “especially if you have a lot of land, and you just go out and cut your own tree in the woods,” Bray says, as most Mainers did every Christmas. But if people in Boston were buying his cedar fence posts, Hall thought, why not sell them some of the balsam firs that grew in the woods too? Thus, in 1931, Hall’s Christmas Tree Farm was born.
Three generations later, on a brisk fall day, 43-year-old Bray walked me through neat rows of balsam and Fraser firs on the farm she grew up on. The business has changed some since her great-grandfather’s day. Home Depot is now the country’s largest seller of live Christmas trees. Amazon began shipping full-size, freshly cut trees to customers’ doors this year. And, as at farms of all kinds across Maine, the question of succession — just who will take over the Pine Tree State’s labor-intensive, slow-yield tree farms as baby boomers retire — is a pressing one.
In George Hall’s day, when potatoes and peas grew in the fields now lined with conifers, Christmas trees were a sort of postscript to the summer growing season. At first, Hall didn’t even plant them, just lopped the tops off of tall firs in his woodlot to make living-room–size specimens. His son and grandson would rock the upper stretches of one trunk back and forth so they could swing to the next like boreal Tarzans, saving the time it would take to climb down and back up.
The Christmas tree biz today involves fewer acrobatics and far more patience. In 2014, after 20 years away from Sangerville, Bray bought her grandparents’ house, one of three on her family’s farmland, and she’s in the process of taking over the business from her aunt and uncle as they move towards retirement. Still, it will be several years before she’s harvesting full-size trees of her own raising.
Wearing a blue hoodie and a light-blue printed scarf knotted at her throat, Bray led me to her dooryard to show off her investment in the future of her family’s land and business: three long, narrow beds, about 4 feet across, full of what looked like evergreen tips tucked into the dirt. They are, in fact, some thousand nascent Christmas trees that Bray is growing from seed, some native Maine balsam firs, some stately (but less fragrant) Fraser firs, and a cross known to tree farmers as “Fralsam,” which she hopes can provide the best of both worlds. The seedlings in this miniature forest will be five years old before they’re planted in the field, where they may grow as tall as 12 feet before they’re harvested at 10 or sometimes 11 years old.
Bray was close with her grandfather, who died in 1992, and he put her to work at a young age, making bows and other decorations during the summer months, then helping out in the Christmas tree shop in the winter, decorating wreaths and selling trees. She lived in Boothbay before moving home to Sangerville, and she still commutes back and forth to run a successful landscaping business there — she envisions the tree farm as a supplemental rather than a full-time gig. “I always knew I wanted to be part of the land,” she says. “I didn’t really picture that I was going to be a Christmas tree farmer, necessarily. But I knew I wanted to do something on the land, maybe just own a chunk of it — to be part of it.”