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The perfect tree for sale

Andrew Lowell stands in front of small three year-old tree at this family’s small operation on South Whitefield Road, Whitefield. (Photo by Jeff Woodburn). (click for larger version)
December 09, 2009
"Most people are fussy," says Miles Finnegan as he pauses before bailing yet another customer's Christmas tree in a light protective netting. "They want perfect trees." In this day and age, they get them. Christmas tree farms, like Finnegan's Fine Firs in Bethlehem, spend about seven years sculpting a tree before it reaches its prized shape and fullness. After 42 years in the Christmas tree businesses, he's seen a lot, but on Saturday afternoon he had a rare request: a customer in pursuit of a homely tree. Finnegan checked his "pathetic pile" and found one that fit the bill. "It was a Charlie Brown and some," he said in reference to the famous Peanut's character's ugly Christmas tree. The purchaser was pleased and promised to not only make it look beautiful but send Finnegan a photograph to prove it.

Gone are the days of trudging through the woods, craning necks toward the tops of towering trees and sadly to find that upon closer inspection it is far from perfect. In New Hampshire, the Christmas tree market has rid consumers of the frustration of scrawny trees.

The market itself is small, by agriculture standards, with annual sales of around $4 million. While pruning and caring for the trees is a year round job, the selling season is highly condensed lasting about five weeks.

The "cut your own" venues are the most popular and with an ample supply of perfect trees, this leaves farmers competing in non-traditional ways. "Unless your trees are bad," said Nigel Manley, manager of the Rocks Estate Christmas Tree Farm, in Bethlehem, they become a secondary factor.

The key he says is, "What else do you offer." The Rocks, which is the largest facility in the region, has a festival like setting featuring a gift shop with promoting local artisans, dog sled and horse-drawn wagon rides and a green Father Christmas, providing tree seedlings to youngsters. Mike Garvin, of Mountain Star Farm in Swift Water (near Bath on Route 112) agrees, "you have to do something to draw them." A clown could be found at their farm last weekend. Finnegan's Fine Firs was less dramatic and more wholesome with a pen full of sheep, a small gift shop and a fire pit.

All three report that they are off to a strong start. Mountain Star Farm has 130,000 trees growing on 150 acres of owned and leased land. Owner Mike Garvin, a former U.S. Forest Service employee, said it takes seven to ten years to produce a typical Christmas tree. They mow around and hand-trim all their trees, which he says is "very labor intensive." Mountain Star Farm has been selected as the New Hampshire State Christmas tree Champion seven years in a row at the Eastern States Exposition (Big E). They've developed a growing mail-order business, which has sent trees all over the U.S. including Hawaii. Their "cut your own" trees prices range from a $10-$35.

The Rocks Estate Tree Farm, which is owned by the New Hampshire Forest Society, has the benefit being part of a 108-year-old forestry organization and land trust with 10,000 members. As well, it sprawling property encompasses 14,000 acres. They are the largest in volume dealer in the region with around 6,000 tree sales annually ranging from cut your own, retail and about 400 mail-order sales.

Establishing partnerships is an important part of the Rocks' success, Manley says, who has overseen the farm since its beginning in 1986. They've sold 900 two-night packages with local lodging facilities.

On Sunday, cars many with out-of-state plates were parked along the extensive drive leading to the former estate. A large group of young volunteers assisted customers with the logistics of choosing, cutting and hauling trees. Nearby, a pack of sled dogs howled boisterously. Neil Beaulieu, of Jefferson, owner of Muddy Paws Dog Sled, provided fifteen or twenty rides at cost of $25 per person (typically they charge $85 at the Mount Washington Resort). The snow conditions, he said, not demand kept the number of rides, which last around 20 minutes, down. Tree prices at the Rocks range from $20 to $130.

A short distance away is Finnegan's operation, which is considerably smaller and homier. Myles Finnegan's wife, Carol, a former school principal, and his son, Miles, who soon will be taking over the management of the family operation work with two employees to care for the customers, make wreaths and tend to the gift shop. They have around 10,000 trees and annually harvest about ten percent. The tree prices range from $3 to $130.

A talented tinker, Finnegan's handwork is everywhere, including the converted chicken coop, which houses the wreath making operation, and an authentic looking out-house which hides a modern port-a-potty. His most noticeably contraption is his home-made tree bailer, which included salvaged material from among other things support rods that held a radiator from 1946 Chevy truck, an angle iron from an electrical tower and smoke stack from an old Cog Railroad locomotive.

A retired from the U.S. Forest Service employee, Finnegan got his first job planting trees when he was 14 years-old. "I got $4 a tree," he said, "I was on top of the world." Melissa Sheehan, of Bethlehem, and her immediate and extended family make an annual holiday trip to Finnegan's. "It's cozy," she says, "I like to support a local place."

In Whitefield, Andrew Lowell represents what the Christmas tree business was like several years ago when backyard growers, not large, professional operation dominated. He has a small orchard of trees behind his house. Eight years ago they planted 2,500 trees and have about 100 saleable trees left. It is more of a hobby, than business for Lowell. "At this scale, it's like cutting firewood (by hand)," he said. He most enjoys watching the kids eyes light up when they find the perfect tree.

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