The Swingle family, owners of Spring Brook Century Tree Farm, near Lambs Creek, have been in the Christmas tree business for nearly 40 years, but according to Bill Swingle, the farm has been family owned since 1831.
Some 40,000 trees are planted on the 225-acre farm. In the 1980s, when the farm was “at its biggest,” there were around 100,000, Swingle said.
Tree farms now endure more competition than they did in the ’80s, he said, which has affected market share.
“Competition also makes the quality higher. We mow every several years now for wildlife and environmental reasons,” Swingle said.
The operation strictly is a family owned and operated one, with brothers, Bill, 37, and Bob Jr., 52, and their families running it. Swingle’s son, Taylor, 13, and Bob’s son, Jim, 25, help during the busy season, Swingle said.
Swingle’s wife, Wendy, also makes wreaths and swags out of cuttings from the trees.
Being a seasonal business, the families rely on other income from the brothers’ outside employment. Bill is a shop teacher at North Penn High School and Bob works for North Penn Gas.
During the busy weeks leading up to the holiday, Swingle said they hire one additional person to help sell trees at the farm, which is open every day from Thanksgiving through Christmas. One feature of the farm includes tractor-drawn hayrides into the “plantation” for people who want to choose and cut their own fresh tree every weekend in December.
This year will be different with no hayrides offered the last weekend before Christmas, because it is so close to the holiday, Swingle said.
“This will be the last weekend for it this year, but we will be open today daylight to dark,” he added.
The family plants about 4,000 new trees each year, keeping a continual supply coming to replace the 2,000 they sell per year, Swingle said.
Business is “pretty steady” from year to year, split between wholesale and retail sales, he said.
The biggest sellers are the Douglas and Canaan Firs.
“Another popular one is the Balsalm Fir,” Swingle added.
All firs have soft needles. The farm also sells blue and Norway spruce, which have stiffer needles, he said.
In general, seven feet is the height most people look for in a Christmas tree, Swingle said.
“We do have some as tall as 14 feet,” he said.
Swingle said pin stands, which hold the tree up through a hole drilled through the center of the trunk, make a straight trunk not as necessary as it used to be.
“This is the first year we’ve offered it,” he said.
Another longtime Christmas tree grower in Tioga County is 70-year-old Reed Zimmer, Covington, who owns and operates Zimmer Century Tree Farm on Cherry Flats Road.
The Zimmer family, including his two daughters, son-in-law and six grandchildren, all help out during the busy pre-holiday season.
Though he doesn’t plant trees any more on his 70 acres in Copp Hollow, he has about 70,000 trees “in various stages” of growth, minus a few due to crop failure, he said. They sell about 1,000 trees per year, all retail from the lot on the farm and choose and cut.
The trees — but especially newly planted ones — can be affected by dry weather, like that which the area experienced this past summer.
According to Zimmer, the farm was established in 1830 by his great-great-great grandfather, Peter W. Zimmer.
“He moved here with his wife and children from Schoharie County, N.Y. He bought a few different parcels. One was 518 acres that he got for $575 and another 1,165 acres for $1,100, and another 1,117-acre parcel for about the same price. The land wasn’t settled and the roads hadn’t been built yet,” Zimmer said.
This year, the family is celebrating 175 years on a portion of the same farm.
“We don’t have 2,800 acres any more. Now, we do have a total of 220 acres. Some is woods, some beaver swamp,” he joked.
Zimmer said he started the Christmas tree business in the mid-1980s after his parents died “as a way to keep the fields from becoming overgrown with weed trees and to provide some income to sustain the farm for future generations.”
Zimmer offers about 15 species, many of them exotic, he said.
“Some species do well in our soil, other don’t survive because the clay is poorly drained, but so far production has kept up with demand,” he said.
Zimmer said he started offering pin stands for his trees in the late ’80s “so that all trees could be displayed in an upright position as you would have them in your home instead of having them leaning against a fence, as was common.”
This was followed in successive years by the addition of a shaker, to get rid of dead needles and a net baler to make trees easier to transport.
Zimmer also has introduced many exotic species that now have become common and in demand.
“Exotic trees are those not native to this area, such as Colorado blue spruce that has adapted well here,” he said.
He also has canaan firs, which are native to West Virginia; frazier firs, native to North Carolina; and balsalm firs and Lincoln Douglas firs, from Arizona and New Mexico.
“Black Hills white spruce, a native of the Dakotas, is new this year,” Zimmer said. “Another one is the Meyer spruce, native to China, being offered here for the first time.”
CHERYL R. CLARKE/Sun-Gazette
A young couple from Philadelphia pick out their first Christmas tree together, a Canaan Fir, at Spring Brook Century Tree Farm in Lambs Creek recently.