Delaware tree farm keeps retirees busy


Isaac Jones was an herb salesman and landscaper from Chippewa Falls, Wis., who spent the month of November camped out in the back woods of northern Wisconsin, harvesting Christmas trees. This was in the early 1900s.
"He had one of a few federal permits to cut in the federal forest in Wisconsin," recalled his granddaughter, Lorna Landis. "He basically topped them," she said. "He sold them wholesale to retail stands and sold retail at home — until he was 76."
After Lorna and her husband, Jim Landis — both natives of Delaware — married and had children of their own, Jones would ship a tree from Wisconsin before Christmas. Later, they started taking the children to select a tree after Thanksgiving.
"My father planted trees on a couple of acres. It sounded like a good retirement venture," Lorna said.
She and Jim looked for a plot of land near the beach on which to retire and grow trees. They found a 21-acre plot on Johnson Lane in Harbeson and purchased it in 1987. Before they could start planting trees, the property flooded badly. They put in a ditch and pond to manage the water.
The first trees were planted in 1991. The first sales were in 1999, "and we've been selling every year since," Jim said.
In 2009-'10, the property flooded again, causing the loss of 5,600 trees. The government was no help in recouping the loss, Jim said.
There is not yet crop insurance for Christmas tree production. "We take our hits and roll with the next punch,” he added. "Last spring we lost 2,300 trees." The effects of water damage can be seen in more trees that likely will be removed this year.
The couple also will remove some Leyland cypress that have gotten too big — up to 20 feet tall. The Leylands are an excellent choice for Christmas trees if managed properly, Jim said,  "Bag worms are the biggest enemy, but I've only found two."
Jim tags the trees that are available for sale each year, choosing those that are ready (5 feet and taller) and ensuring inventory for next year. In previous years he encouraged use of Leylands that way; this year there aren't as many to push.
The white pine are a decent seller, he said, but they take more work, so he limits plantings and thereby sales. "They grow fast, like the Leylands," he added. "They're one of my favorite trees."
Fir needs well drained soil, but the Landises have planted Douglas fir, Canaan fir and Concolor fir, as well as white spruce and Norway spruce. The spruce grow nicely and are well-shaped, he said.
They sell limited quantities of pre-cut Fraser firs. It's too sandy and warm here for Fraser firs, Jim said. "Some have tried it with success; others haven't had success." He tried 10, because his daughter wanted them, but they didn't make it.
Jim is experimenting with Turkish fir, Nordman's fir and Korean fir. "We've had moderate success," Jim said. They've been affected by the wetness. He is considering adding balsam this year.
"We planted 2,000 trees this year, and 2,100 last year," he said. "Every spot has a tree."
The whole farm is an educational process, Jim said. For example, they've learned that white pine should be sheared before full needle burst — when the new needles are about an inch long, not fully developed. "They really look pretty," Jim said.
They've developed sources for liner plants in Pennsylvania and Michigan. "The information we get at MANTS is the biggest help," he continued. "We see the dealers and see what's available."
The really nice part of the business is promoting a tradition and the real meaning of Christmas. They help make it a family Christmas, with the emphasis on family."
"People come year after year," Lorna said. Customers are called "guests" at her insistence. She feeds her guests — homemade cookies, hot cider and hot chocolate. "I make 350 dozen cookies per season," she said. "I make the dough ahead and freeze it."
Volunteers help in the business in season, and local kids are paid to help. Some of the volunteers proclaim, "I work for trees."
Guests choose their tree and it is cut for them, transported to the barn area where it is shaken to remove loose needles. Before the tree is loaded on the car, a photo is taken of the guests, who can retrieve it from the bulletin board next year when they return for their next tree.
Sometimes, in a sad situation such as loss of a spouse, a guest will drive up before Thanksgiving and ask for the photo. Lorna recalled one lady who came with her family to be in the photo each year. Using a walker with a seat in it, she would wait by the baling table while the rest of the family found a tree. "She was 106 the last time she came, in 2007," Lorna said. "She died two months short of 107."
Lorna said, "We've had a lot of neat experiences." That includes meeting guests who come from far away for a tree. One came from Edgewood, Md., another takes a tree home to Manhattan, in New York City.
Most tree growers in Delaware, like most farmers, are past middle age. "We are in our 70s," Lorna said.
"Our son, J.D., is interested in the business. He works when he can. Our daughter's husband is always helpful, too. He provides equipment," Jim said. "He labels presents 'To Pop from Fred for Fred." Their daughter, Barbara Thomas helps when she can.
Lorna would like to have a manager take on the major responsibility. "Jim and I do it to keep active." They get tired, she admitted, but it's a good feeling to be tired for a reason.
Jim interjected, "It's what we want to do in retirement. You can only golf and fish so much."
Lorna was assistant treasurer at Bank of New York in Delaware; Jim was part owner in an insurance agency. Working on the tree farm is now Lorna's favorite time, although it's demanding work. "I do my best thinking on the mower," she said.
"We keep the farm mowed, which looks better, keeps the critters down and makes it easier to deal with the trees," Lorna said.
The deer ticks have been really bad, perhaps because the deer are numerous, including sets of twin and triplet fawns. Mostly the deer rut on the trees, Jim said. "We lose a half dozen trees a year." The first year he planted Eastern white pine, deer would bite the top out, then drop the piece on the ground. Jim leaves the damaged trees in the field for the deer to go back to.
"We enjoy the wildlife," Lorna admitted, sitting at the dining room table watching a pair of cardinals help themselves to seed in a tray on the deck outside. "There's a pair of twins that are not as skittish. I was mowing the other day and they let me get closer and closer, then bedded down. I got within four rows of them."
The trees are planted on a grid, and after trees are removed, the stumps are ground and new trees planted in the same spot. That makes it easier to mow in both directions.
Despite low-lying ground, sometimes trees need watering. The Landises invested in reel irrigation but rarely have had to use it. "When it seems we haven't had rain in a while, we water," Jim said. "An inch a week is okay. Our mantra is, 'It is what it is and you can't change it.'"
Jim is acting president of the Delaware Tree Growers Association. He was president for four years, and agreed to step in and lead the group through the rest of the year, and to be co-president next year.
"We have 23 growers statewide, out of 46 growers in the state. We try to provide education and to keep 'Real trees' before the public."
Jim noted that artificial trees, being petroleum based, catch fire more rapidly than a real tree.
He also noted that a new federal Christmas tree checkoff program will go into effect for imported trees this year and for domestic trees in 2015. He and Lorna each expressed the hope that the 15 cents per tree collected would be put to good use.