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Back in the dark ages of the late 1960s my father, Lewis H. (Jack) Stowell Sr and I were planting our farm in Brookfield to Christmas trees. My father wanted to plant mostly Balsam Fir but the deer population then was very high and they were eating the buds, mostly in the Spring, as fast as we were planting them. Therefore we were planting Scotch Pine. Deer rarely ate Scotch Pine.  We sold in wholesale trailer truck quantities. We did not want to mess with the retail trade figuring that there were not enough people in Brookfield who didn’t have trees growing on their own property to sell to.

Through the grapevine I heard about an opportunity in nearby Pond Village, home of the Floating Bridge, one of three villages in the town of Brookfield, only about three miles from our farm. A farmer owning a property with about 40 acres of crop land and a home had planted about 40,000 Norway Spruce and White Spruce seedlings or transplants in order to qualify for a subsidy from the USDA “Soil Bank” program in exchange for not growing farm crops on the land. The trees were growing quite well but could not be cut for ten years. In the meantime the farmer sold the property to some out of state “Summer People”. That was Vermonters called folks who purchased property in Vermont and only stayed there during the Summer. It was considered a pretty good deal for the residents because the Summer People fixed their properties up, paid taxes and had no children in school. The opportunity that I heard about was that the new owners were contemplating cutting or bulldozing the trees down because they were about to spoil their view.

After checking with the nearby USDA office I went to the new owners and explained how the soil bank program worked and suggested that my father and I would contract to shape the trees and sell them giving them a share of the proceeds. The soil bank requirements allowed us to shape the trees before the ten year soil bank contract expired but we couldn’t harvest any until then. We were worried that we might not be able to shape and sell all 40,000+- trees but were sure we could sell a lot of them. It would be a net gain for both the owners and us.

I had completed my active duty military service and was in the Vermont National Guard completing my inactive service committment. I was on the list to go to US Army Flight School to become a helicopter pilot for several years. No one expected that I would ever go because during the Vietnam war there were almost no vacancies for US Army Reserve or Army National Guard personnel. One day I received a frantic phone call from Vermont Guard HQS saying that a vacancy had occurred but they needed to know right then if I would go. I said yes and went to flight school soon after. While I was at flight School in Texas and Alabama my father was shaping the trees and contending with people who were stealing the trees at Christmas time.

My father was convinced that the theft would increase because more trees were growing to marketable size and the soil bank contract had expired the year I returned from flight school. We sold some of the trees in wholesale lots that Fall but were unsure how to keep people from stealing the rest as Thanksgiving and Christmas approached. My father suggested reluctantly that we would have to go over to the tree lot on the weekends and guard the trees. We would also have to patrol the lot during the week or we would lose a fair number of trees based on his experience while I was gone. We decided that if we had to be there anyway, we might as well put an ad in the local newspapers and sell a few to compensate us for sitting there. I put ads in the Times Argus and the White River Valley Herald (it is now called the Herald of Randolph).  I am not sure if the Washington World had started the first year or two we sold trees but we advertised in it as soon as it did.

We had a 1963 Willy’s Jeep, 4X4, cab-over, stake bodied, 3/4 ton pick up truck. The first year we huddled in the truck beside the road with heater on occasionally, waiting for customers. We brought our Howey tree baler so we could tie the trees up allowing customers to take them home on or in their cars. We were surprised! We got quite a few happy customers over the four weekends before Christmas. Some days were cold, snowy and windy but the customers were willing to brave the elements and choose and buy their tree from us. We still lost a few trees to midnight tree thieves but nowhere near what we would have lost had we not set up the choose and cut tree lot. In subsequent years we had a smoky bonfire to warm us up during slow periods. We could keep pretty warm walking up and down the hill cutting and dragging the trees in the snow but waiting was cold work.

That was 45 years ago and we moved the choose and cut operation three times during that time. In 1992 we renovated an old corn barn near our home and turned it into the current Christmas Barn. We now have electricity, a wood fired furnace, a bake sale on busy weekends and a place to get warm during slow periods. What a change!

I am not sure that crime paid for the tree thieves as we caught and prosecuted a few but the threat of crime and our response to it has paid well for us. Had the theft not been occurring, we would not have braved the elements and sat in our drafty truck waiting for customers. We probably would not have been selling trees choose and cut at our farm 45 years later.

Where the Christmas Tree Industry Started

I have read in several articles and heard statements made on the media over the years that the Christmas tree industry began by people cutting trees in the forest and taking the tops as Christmas trees. That certainly happened but in very small numbers. Just think how many large conifers you would have to cut to get a truck load of trees, much less the many railcars that were used. No! The beginning of the Christmas tree business in at least the Northeastern states of the USA began in the dairy farm pasture, particularly the “back pasture”.

Dairy Farm History

Dairy farmers in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century were faced with a problem and the Christmas tree industry became it solution. Farmers would let their cows out of the barn into the pastures in late April to mid May. The new growth was coming out on the hardwood trees and low woody plants and after a long winter the cows craved something fresh and green. Their feeding was often frenzied and not gentle. This kept the hardwoods from infiltrating and filling in the pastures. However this just made it easier for the conifers to proliferate and also threaten to overwhelm the pastures. However the cows were helpful again because they sought out the softer foliaged trees such as Balsam Fir and White Pine and during warm and hot weather used these softer trees to rub against to seek relief from flies and itches. They typically destroyed the trees they used as scratching devices. This left the pastures with Red Spruce and in higher elevations White Spruce which flourished without much competition. Removing these trees by hand labor (there were no chain saws, brush cutters or weed whackers) was time consuming and had no reward. The spruce was only useful as pulp or saw logs and that required them to grow for at least 20 years by which time the pasture would be completely wooded and no longer provide grazing to cows. The cows generally stayed in the pasture until cold weather forced them back to the barn.

 

Pasture Management

A typical Vermont farmer kept his cows currently giving milking in pastures near the barn. They went out to pasture after being milked in the morning, returned to the barn in late afternoon for another milking and then went back out to pasture for the night. The cows who were pregnant, waiting to get pregnant, were too young to get pregnant or were young steers intended for slaughter in the Fall were put in pastures further away from the barn, sometimes several miles by road from the barn. These were called “Back Pastures”. The back pastures often had the bigger population and selection of spruce trees. The farmer visited these back pastures occasionally to be sure that the fences had not been breached and that the cows were doing well. Quite often in the days before artificial insemination there would be a bull in the back pasture to get the cows pregnant. This could be a challenge to anyone touring the pasture to see how many trees were available to cut.

 

Christmas Tree History

A foreman or owner of a company cutting Christmas trees would visit the farmers near a town with a railroad siding in the Summer and contract for the trees. Typically the trees needed to be cut every four to five years. In early October the cutting crew would cut the trees and tie them into bundles with varying numbers of trees per bundle. For example table top trees were 12 to a bundle and large trees were 1 to a bundle. The man cutting the trees (the cutter or chopper) generally used a light and sharp axe of about 2.5 pounds. He bent the tree over and cut it with one or two cuts. He dropped the trees where they fell and moved on to the next. These were then “snaked” to the closest pile, often 3 or 4 at a time depending upon their size by the “snaker” Meanwhile the “tier” selected a number of trees, straddled them and tied them into a tight bundle with twine. A good tier could tie around 200 bundles a day which might consist of 600 to 800 trees. A rail car typically held from 500 to 700 bundles depending upon the size of the trees in the customer’s order. Some pastures produced more trees than others but generally they were not worth doing if they didn’t have at least a days worth of work. At the end of each day the bundles were covered with spruce boughs from larger Spruce to protect them from the sun and wind. Even a small crew of 3 or 4 men could produce enough bundles to fill at least ten rail cars or more in a season. They might have to cut in several towns with railroad sidings some time many miles apart. The rail cars were shipped to large cities like New York, Detroit, New Orleans, etc. to arrive in late November and early December.

 Christmas Trees Were A Solution

Why was this a good deal for the farmer? He got paid for each bundle of trees and additionally if he wanted to, he got the job of moving the trees with his team of horses or tractor from their many piles to the edge of the road by mid November and got paid so much per bundle for that as well. In effect he got paid by check or cash for his pastures being maintained for him.

The Demise of the Back Pasture

In the 1960s a number of innovations in dairy farming made back pastures less used. There were fewer farms as well. Trees were now starting to be planted and grown in old pastures and fields without being grazed by cattle. This allowed trees with soft foliage such as Balsam Fir to be grown safely although areas with large deer populations were still at risk. The Fir trees tended to hold their needles better than Spruce and were less prickly. Customers like that. Back pastures are mostly a thing of the past and the Christmas tree industry has changed but that is how it started in the back pasture.

Often people ask us, "What do you do on a Christmas tree farm from New Years to Columbus Day"? The following photos and captions should help you understand at least a little of what goes on at our farm beefore the harvest season begins.

On November 22, 2015 we finished harvesting holiday greens for wholesale customers for this year.  We were able to clean up most of the mess that harvesting the greens cause.  We are apprehensive about saying we are slightly ahead of schedule because sometimes some unforeseen event causes more work.

April 2012- as soon as the frost was mostly out of the ground, we removed the stumps of Spruce trees that were cut in 2011 on about 3 1/2 acres. We tilled the soil removing roots and other debris and planted it to barley.” The barley was strictly a cover crop intended to improve the soil before we plant new trees in it. We did the removal with an E50 Bobcat excavator and did the seeding with a Brillion seeder, both rented from LW Greenwood and Sons in East Randolph, VT.

James Sabens pulling stumps from the ground in the upper field.

James on the tractor with grapple removing roots, stumps, etc. while
Lew is resting the excavator briefly in the lower field.


This is an average stump pulled from the ground. Many were larger.


This is a sample of the debris to be removed in the upper field.

SUMMER 2013 LAND CLEARING

In order to continue to have land available for planting new Christmas trees we hired Bruce Limlaw and his experienced crew under the watchful eye of our forester, Rose Beatty to clear approximately 12 acres of overgrown Christmas trees and to thin an adjoining stand of overcrowded young growth hardwood timber trees. Here is a stand of Balsam Fir taken before the cutting began in July.





















To accomplish this with the minimal impact on the soil the Limlaw crew used a Timberjack 750G “Feller- Buncher” seen here placing a number of trees in a pile.























If you are wondering how the Feller Buncher is able to quickly cut a tree, the answer is found in the circular blade seen here. As a frame of reference when the machine shut down, Lew noticed that it took over 12 minutes for the blade to come to a stop, such was the speed of operation and the weight of the blade.


Once the Feller-Buncher got a good head start (a couple of days,) the Morbark chipper arrived and was fed by two large John Deere 750G skidders. The chipper could process up to a 30” tree stem or a number of smaller ones at one time.




















The chips were blown into a 53 foot tractor trailer and taken to one of the two wood chip powered electric power plants (Burlington Electric and Ryegate Power Station.

When completed the area had suffered minimal damage and grass was starting to grow as shown here in early September.

 Kevin Stoddard seeding the barley in the upper field.

Barley in the upper field in July.