Whoa Tannenbaum!

By Willy Blackmore
Illustration by Kelsey Grass

Taking over a long-running Christmas tree farm is a daunting affair, but as a generation of Maine’s tree farmers ages out, new growers like Sangerville’s Abbey Bray are stepping in to make the fir fly.

Whoa Tannenbaum!
Whoa Tannenbaum!

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From our December 2018 issue.

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.”

Maine Christmas Tree Farm

Abbey Bray’s grandfather ran Hall’s Christmas Tree Farm when she was a kid — and he didn’t mind putting her to work on wreaths.

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Whoa Tannenbaum!

“This winter marks the last of two generations working side by side at Hall’s.”

Bray and I have something in common in that my grandfather also sold Christmas trees, following the great Maine tradition of the winter side-hustle — although mine followed it unwittingly and in Iowa. He too ran a landscaping business during the summer months, then switched in the winter to wreath making and tree flocking — that is, garnishing a cut tree with artificial snow made from tiny colored fibers. That was in the ’60s and early ’70s, before I was born, although I have readily embraced the bucolic image of Grandpa Wink the Christmas Tree Farmer as part of my personal family mythology. By the time I was spending Christmases at his farm in northern Iowa — decidedly not evergreen country in the manner of northern Maine — my granddad’s only enduring labor as a tree farmer was to cut one down each December, often a blue spruce, its gray-blue needles an ideal backdrop for the simple white lights and gold and silver balls he hung from its boughs.

Those were the Christmas trees of my youth, the archetypal trees I try to recreate now, in look and in feeling. I’ve never abided fake trees and always scoffed at flocking and other artificial touches — only recently did I learn from my dad that, in the ’60s, my grandpa was a one-man tree-flocking machine. But then the details never matter when it comes to the emotion of memory. With Christmas trees especially, what matters are your mental snapshots of a tree and the feeling of the care that went into choosing it — my grandfather in his Red Wing boots and corduroy newsboy cap, the ear flaps turned down, going out to pick a tree especially for my sister and me.

Hall's Christmas Tree Farm, Maine
Hall's Christmas Tree Farm, Maine

Despite my sentimental impressions, my grandfather’s tree business was never all that romantic. Most of his stock came from a contract grower in northern Wisconsin and was brought down to Iowa in sod trucks every November. The trees that were grown locally came from a plot of land everyone at the nursery called “the acreage,” which sat alongside a gravel road outside of town. In the summer, my grandfather would go out to the acreage and spray the trees with green paint to cover up the gray dust of the road.

Hall’s Christmas Tree Farm is romantic — or so it seems to me, anyway. Up the hill from Bray’s old farmhouse and past the barn where the pre-cut trees are displayed, cut-your-own customers follow a path beneath a kind of archway made by overlapping boughs of tall white pines and framing the cultivated firs up ahead. There’s no gravel dust, no need for even a drop of paint. When it’s blanketed with snow, the farm doesn’t require any kind of dressing up: this is Christmasland, offering visitors the escape they expect when they go to find a tree, a bit of o’er the river and through the woods. In my grandfather’s case — and at those Depression-era tree stands George Hall saw in Boston — it took a bit of artifice to gin up the magic that goes into the experience of buying a tree.

Bray compares it to what draws people to the landscapes painted by her father, Maine artist Alan Bray. She remembers seeing his work at a show in New York City years ago and watching as urban gallery-hoppers “were all gazing into this woodland and dreaming about it,” she says. “I feel the same way: you go to a little tree lot, and you’re escaping the city a little bit, I guess.”

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Whoa Tannenbaum!

The fall leaves were still peaking when I visited Bray this October, but her uncle and aunt, Toby and Cynthia Hall, were out doing inventory. As we walked between rows of 7- and 8-foot firs, due to be harvested this winter, Cynthia explained to me the process by which trees are graded — as a No. 2., a No. 1, or a Premium — and it was clear how good a person can get at seeing the trees for the forest if she spends a lifetime growing them.

“The first thing we look at is density — can you see through the tree?” Cynthia said, gesturing at what, to my eye, looked like a beautiful fir. “The second thing we look at is color. Then we walk around the tree and divide it into four faces. A premium has to have three good faces. This right here and this right here —” she pointed to gaps in the branches I’d have never noticed — “these would be minor defects.”

“And then the top,” Cynthia went on. “Sometimes, if you go to one side, it will look perfect. Then you look at the other side, and if that side is an ugly side, you grade it lower.” After more than a decade of snowfalls and browsing deer and maybe an insect infestation or two, this tree was close to perfect — a solid No. 1. Cynthia tied a small length of patterned plastic ribbon around the top, indicating as much.

The actual labor of tree farming hasn’t changed dramatically in a generation or so — it still involves planting, pruning, monitoring and treating trees for pests, and, at cut-your-own operations, creating that wintertime magic. “We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, but that’s been a given for a long time,” says Joanne Bond, executive secretary at the Maine Christmas Tree Association. What has changed are both demand and supply. Sales of real trees outpace fake ones, Bond says, but these days, real trees are also available from sources that Bray’s forebears never had to compete with, from big-box stores to online vendors, all of which can easily underprice mom-and-pop operations. The next generation of Maine’s tree farmers may well have to work harder to sell the experience in addition to the greenery.

This winter marks the last of two generations working side by side at Hall’s. As she prepares to take over the farm entirely, Bray is trying to learn all she can from her aunt and uncle, though she admits there’s no making up for the time she went away to college. She’s also getting inspiration from the new generation of meat and produce farmers moving to Maine in recent years — even around Sangerville, a place Bray says young people have more often wanted to move away from. Looking at these new farmers, she says, with their heirloom radishes and barn dinners and lively Instagram feeds, has helped her realize that her farm “doesn’t have to be how it’s been since 1931 — but I’m so blessed to have that history also.”

She’s paring the farm back from the larger operation her aunt and uncle have grown it into, which sold 10,000 trees annually at its peak, including to some wholesale clients, florists and other small retailers in Maine and elsewhere. In the coming years, she plans to put in hedges of holly and other ornamentals used in decorating, marketing a kind of farm-to-mantle approach to wreath making (the Halls currently get artificial berries from local wholesalers and gather some decorative elements, like pine cones, locally). She wants to experiment with companion planting and other permaculture concepts, as well as to keep expanding the farm’s presence on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, already successful in drawing younger families alongside customers who’ve been buying trees at Hall’s for decades.

“I think that’s how I see me doing this,” Bray says. “It’s like taking a version of what used to be this huge production on a lot of these farms to being more of a specialty Christmas tree farm.”

Hall's Christmas Tree Farm, Maine

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Hall's Christmas Tree Farm, Maine

Around midday, Toby and Cynthia took a break from grading and tagging to set up some folding stools in the field and have what they called their “supper.” As they ate, Setti, their lanky black Lab, turned laps around a strip of mowed grass running alongside the trees. Cynthia said that she and Toby talk about their retirement every time they walk past a tree; they are clearly ready to move on with their lives. But there’s comfort in knowing that the farm will stay in the family, Cynthia said. She turned her gaze down the hill, towards a plot of 2-foot firs that Bray planted three years ago, which look more like blue-green blobs than anything resembling the conical shape they will soon grow into.

“When I stand here at break time,” she said, “I love looking down there at Abbey’s trees.”

Evergreen Endorsements

We asked on Facebook and Instagram where our readers go to cut their own Christmas trees. A few follower faves:

Conifers Unlimited Christmas Tree Farm

263 Cowen Hill Rd., Farmington.

“I like the personal touches: the goodies they give away and the hidden pickle ornaments in the trees are fun.”

Carolyn in Allens Mills

Bond Mountain Acres

174 Bond Spring Rd., Newfield.

“Owners Tom and Joanne are lifelong Mainers, and there’s a lot of history there — Tom tells about his mother buying the property in the ’20s, if I’m not mistaken, for a few dollars an acre. They offer the kids hot cocoa and candy canes and make their own wreaths.”

Jason in Newfield

Johnson’s Tree Farm

586 Ridge Rd., Robbinston.

“Family owned and run. So friendly and loads of trees to pick from.”

Ann in Calais

Piper Mountain Christmas Trees

27 Trundy Rd., Newburgh.

“You can walk down the hill into their shop and buy wreaths made right there. Lots of Christmas trinkets and always hot apple cider and donuts. We drive an hour-and-a-half north to carry on the tradition. We love it.”

Melissa in Auburn

Holmes Tree Farm

193 Whitten Rd., Kennebunk. 207-985-3778.

“Some of my earliest memories are of my poor dad dragging us around on a sled while my mom searched for the perfect tree. We moved to South Carolina last year, and I made my husband drive home for Thanksgiving so we could bring back a tree from Holmes.”

Meg in Charleston, South Carolina

Clapp’s Tree Farm

512 Hinckley Ridge Rd., Blue Hill

“Family owned and tended, three generations strong. I’ve been getting my trees there for 30 years now, and they are always gorgeous!”

Sandra in Sedgwick