FAYETTE — When Leigh Stevens headed to Moose Hill Farm earlier this week, he knew just what he was looking for – a short, fat balsam fir Christmas tree to sit in the bay window in the living room of his Livermore Falls home.
As the only one trekking up the hill with a saw on Tuesday, he had his pick of trees. Less than 15 minutes later, Stevens was dragging his choice back down the hill on a tarp to get it wrapped in netting and to pay for it.
Stevens is one of hundreds of Maine residents who will choose and cut their own Christmas tree this year from one of dozens of operations across the state. From Westmanland to Wells and from Hiram to Calais, cut-your-own tree operations are now open for business.
“Our open house is (this) weekend, and it’ll be busy,” Art Young said. “From then, the next couple of weekends will be busy, and that will be it.”
Young runs the Christmas tree operation at Moose Hill Farm with his wife, Marilyn, his brother Joe and sister-in-law Ann, and his sister Jane Keene, although the work of growing and maintaining trees continues throughout the year.
He started the Christmas tree business about three decades go, after inheriting land from his parents. He started planting trees in 1987, and they were ready to be cut in 1994.
So, for 30 years, the cycle has been the same. Planting across his 10 acres starts in mid-April along with a round of weed control. While there’s not much demand for pines, Young grows some and they need to be trimmed in June before they harden off. Trimming the balsam fir starts in August, and that takes about three weeks. Summer also brings mowing and a second round of weed control.
About two weeks before Thanksgiving, he starts to clip greens for the 130 or so wreaths he makes for the Moose Hill Farm shop.
“I like to wait for a hard frost, because it sets the needles and they don’t fall off so quickly,” he said. “If you cut the brush while it’s still warm out, they fall apart pretty quick.”
The tree-care routine is familiar to Dave Higgins, who started planting Christmas trees a decade ago at Higgins Christmas Tree Farm, and started selling them four years ago on Albion Road in Winslow.
“It’s something I have always wanted to do,” Higgins said. “I started it so I will have something to do when I retire in three or four years. It’s taken off far better than what I had expected.”
This year, business started slowly for Higgins. He opened the day after Thanksgiving, which was a slow day for tree sales. Shoppers were more interested in buying gifts on that day than having the tree to put them under, but Higgins anticipates business will pick up this weekend.
People find cut-your-own farms in a variety of ways.
The Maine Christmas Tree Association maintains a listing of its choose-and-cut members as a part of its mission to promote real Christmas trees, but as association Executive Secretary Joanne Bond said, not all Christmas tree producers in the state belong.
Bond Mountain Acres – the operation Bond runs with her husband in West Newfield – and Moose Hill Farm are listed, but Higgins Christmas Tree Farm is not.
They all rely on a variety of methods to get the word out, including websites, social media and tried-and-true roadside signs.
Young said Moose Hill Farm has drawn customers who have searched the internet for trees they can cut and found him. This year, that included the people from Florida who wanted a fresh-cut tree to take back home with them.
Generally, people who find a Christmas tree farm they like come back year after year.
Stevens, who drove to Fayette to choose his tree, has come back to Moose Hill every year for the past six or eight years. He was planning to put up the tree when he got home and decorate it that evening with his wife, so it would be all ready for the gifts she had been buying online.
“They have a wonderful selection of trees,” Stevens said. “There’s really no better place for us, as far as we’re concerned.”
Stevens was fortunate because Moose Hill Farm is open during the week, while many operations are open only on weekends.
From the accounts she’s heard, Bond said this will be a good year for fresh tree sales.
Higgins, who has only about 2,500 trees planted, will cut only those that are ready to cut, he said. Last year, he was sold out of trees by Dec. 6.
Young, who has about 10,000 trees planted, will stay open through the middle of the month. He said he’ll cut some to sell as cut trees, and if any are left, they’ll set them by the side of the road.
“Someone always takes them,” he said.
“All the farms I know are selling out,” said his wife, Marilyn.
While there have been national reports of tree shortages, she said that’s not the case for Maine.
“When many people started (doing) this, the artificial tree was the big thing,” she said. “They didn’t realize it would take off.”
Like many farm-based businesses, the industry is facing some changes as older growers are retiring and selling their farms, Bond said. And when they do that, they often clear their fields to make the land more saleable. Bond, who is 70, and her husband, who is 84, are considering retirement.
But she sees promise in the next generation of tree growers – young couples who want to be more connected to the land and are choosing to farm.
Art Young makes a wreath on Tuesday at Moose Hill Tree Farm in Fayette. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)
Leigh Stevens of Livermore Falls drags a tree he just cut down back to his car on Tuesday at Moose Hill Tree Farm in Fayette. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)