This Month in Mid-Atlantic Horticultural News
Mid-Atlantic Horticultural Rolodex
Wyckoffs plant 5,000 Christmas trees annually
By JANE PRIMERANO
There is a stretch of Route 519 in White Township, N.J., where the road is lined with Christmas trees. Most sport the deep green needles of Douglas firs, always the most popular tree, according to John C. Wyckoff, who tends the 6,500 trees alongside his father, John Wyckoff Jr., and other members of the family. Other trees sport the blue-green of Frasier firs or the whitish-blue and citrusy smell of the concolor.
Wyckoff’s has been a Christmas tree farm since 1958, attested to by the 1958 Chevy station wagon on its logo, but the farm has been in the family for since 1839 when Simon Wyckoff purchased 172 acres. For four generations, according to the website, the farm was self-sufficient, producing milk, livestock and grain.
In 1958, John W. Wyckoff Sr., John C.’s grandfather, planted the first Christmas trees, 1,000 Norway spruce seedlings. In 1967, the first eight trees were harvested. Two were used by the family and six were sold for $5 each. “Marketing” was leaning the trees against the fence.
Now, marketing tends to be word of mouth, John C. said. And 5,000 trees are available for choose and cut each year. “Ninety-five percent of our customers cut their own,” Wyckoff said as he drove to the top of the farm. “They make a day of it. It’s a family excursion.” Customers are welcome to bring their dogs, too, as long as they are kept on a leash. The farm has three sales locations, on top of the hill and on both sides of Route 519.
Besides the three popular firs, customers can choose Canaan fir, Norway, blue, and Serbian spruce and white pine. Wyckoff also digs trees for landscapers and private customers in the spring and fall. Trees can be dug from last frost to when they start to bud. Fall digging starts as the weather cools to avoid stressing the trees. They stopped selling balled trees at Christmas time because it is too hard to gauge the demand and trees inevitably go unsold.
Wyckoff acknowledges people don’t realize all the challenges of Christmas tree farming. Weather impacts every farmer, but when a crop takes seven to 10 years to mature rather than one growing season, guessing the weather is impossible.
“We plant 5,000 every year,” he said. They buy from various nurseries, always looking for the best quality. “Then we hope we sell them. We pray for rain. We pray it’s not too hot so it sucks the moisture out.”
In 2011 there was too much rain. “The roots couldn’t breathe, even in our well-drained soil,” he said. “We replanted a lot this spring, at least one-third of our trees.”
This year has been more promising. “When it got dry we were getting concerned, but it rained in time.” There haven’t been a lot of slow, soaking rains to help the young trees get established, but it hasn’t been bad. Older trees could also have problems, but mostly they go dormant in dry weather, Wyckoff said.
Market conditions are also impossible to predict that far in advance. High gas prices can hurt sales because people often drive distances to cut their trees.
The economy has hurt all farming, “guys are holding on to older equipment, making repairs, not buying new. And the cost of fertilizer skyrocketed,” Wyckoff said.
A tour of the farm reveals how much work goes into caring for the trees. Each tree is individually pruned, starting with a battery-pack weed whacker and finished by hand with hedge clippers. “Beginning the first year every tree is sheared in some fashion,” Wyckoff said.
After the sun has dried off the dew, the fields are mowed to keep weeds away from the smaller trees.
Like every farmer, Wyckoff has been waging a battle with the white-tail deer.
“Frasiers are candy to deer,” he said, noting they are less likely to eat other trees unless there is a shortage of other food.
The farm is fenced from where it joins Mackey’s Orchard next door to Route 519 and it has helped.
Most trees sell at 7 to 8 feet tall, although some people buy 9-foot trees. A few customers want a 12-foot tree 10-feet wide and others want a 4-foot tree.
The farm opens for business on Black Friday and is open weekends in December. The first two are the busiest, depending on weather.
The large Wyckoff family comes in handy. “Everybody’s got a job,” Wyckoff said.
There are three family homes on the farm, John W. Jr’s, John C’s, and his aunt’s, Judy Wyckoff Morris. John C’s boys, John and Bill, are the eighth generation raised on the farm.
“We work six days a week,” Wyckoff said. “Sundays are for church and family except when we are selling.”