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New York Times Article:
By KEVIN COYNE
Published: December 23, 2007
Customers at the Wyckoff Christmas Tree Farm in White Township, N.J. Warren Westura for The New York Times
THEIR LAND At right, left to right, the Wyckoffs — Bill, John and John C. — survey the rows of trees on their farm. They have 35,000 trees growing now. Warren Westura for The New York Times
John Wyckoff was in the eighth grade when his father planted the first Christmas trees on the back slope of a hill in the farthest corner of the old family farm in 1958. The 1,000 tiny Douglas firs were less a business plan than a hobby that kept a difficult piece of ground covered.
Dairy cows were always the main business of the farm, milked daily in the big red barn to fill the cans that were hauled down the road to the train station in this shady courthouse town beside the Delaware River. The fields, 172 acres that the first Wyckoff had bought for $8,000 in 1839, grew corn, wheat and oats for feed.
Christmas trees take at least seven years to grow beyond Charlie Brown size, and in 1967, Mr. Wyckoff and his father cut some on the hill and stood them beside the road. They sold quickly that year, and the year after, and Mr. Wyckoff started to imagine a different kind of future for the farm. The cows were gone by 1970. By 1978, a Wyckoff tree was chosen as the state champion by the New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers Association, a title it has reclaimed four more times, including this year.
“I was never a cow person,” Mr. Wyckoff said as he stood up on the hill on Saturday of the last big weekend before Christmas, surrounded by orderly ranks of trees still two years away from tinsel and lights, the aisles between them covered by a thin, bright crust of snow. “I liked trees.”
The panoramic view from the hill stretches across to Pennsylvania, up along the river to the Delaware Water Gap, and down over a wintry landscape that, while still largely rural, has lost many of its old farms. Six other dairy farms once lined this road; all are gone, and the biggest new crop in this part of Warren County is the retirement housing complex.
Most of the Wyckoff farm occupies the valley 200 feet below the hill, where a steady stream of cars turned in off the road and past the 1860s farmhouse. Families wandered through stands of Douglas fir and Canaan fir and Norway spruce, saws in hand, trying to imagine which would look best dressed up in their living rooms. None of the customers were up on the hill, because none of the trees up here were quite ready yet.
“These are Christmas of 2013,” said John C. Wyckoff, Mr. Wyckoff’s son, as he bumped along the hill in an S.U.V. with his father and his brother, Bill, pointing to a row of young Fraser firs. “That’s the way we have to think, that far down the road.”
Growing anything requires a committed relationship to a piece of ground; growing trees requires a marriage. Each winter after the last tree is sold, the Wyckoffs start shearing the ones in the fields, shaping them with clippers to achieve the steep pyramidal form that is the Platonic ideal of Christmas. They start planting in spring, 4,000 to 5,000 seedlings. Through summer they fertilize, mow between the rows of trees and then start shearing again. In fall they prepare the fields they will plant the next spring — breaking up the ground and picking up rocks, a job that must be done by hand, not by machine, in a bent-over walk behind a slow-moving plow. The fields, and the road leading up to the hill, are all lined by rocks, some the size of gravestones, pulled from the glacial soil.
“They’d tie a piece of baler twine across my lap so I wouldn’t slide off the tractor seat and tell me to steer for that tree across the field,” said John C. Wyckoff, 41, recalling his own time on rock duty as a young boy.
Hazards abound. Deer are fond of Fraser firs, eating them when forage is sparse in winter and rubbing against them to scrape the velvet off their antlers. “That’s deer damage right there,” John C. Wyckoff said, pointing to a sapling missing half its needles, and then to the posts he’s already started setting for 5,000 feet of deer fence.
The whole spring planting in 1999 was lost to that summer’s drought. The 2000 planting was lost when a field flooded and then froze. “That whole thing was filled with trees that should be this big by now,” he said, raising his hand to eye level. “Four thousand trees, gone in one night.”
Nothing at all was planted in 1997 and 1998, when his father was battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “We’re going to get back up there soon,” said the elder Mr. Wyckoff, 63, nodding toward the hill before setting off to help a customer.
The Wyckoffs have 35,000 trees growing now, and they raise 50 acres of feed corn, too, and also six acres of pumpkins. Mr. Wyckoff lives in the original farmhouse on the property; his sister lives across the street. Parked in his yard is the red 1985 Ford pickup that belonged to his late father: “Father Christmas,” it says on the bug shield. John C. Wyckoff lives with his wife and four children, the eighth generation here, in the big house where 35 people will gather for Christmas dinner, the 169th Christmas gathering of Wyckoffs on this land.
“I pray so,” he said when asked whether his children would one day run the farm. “It’s not about what the land is worth. It’s about trying to keep the family farm viable for the next generation.”
The sky was lowering with a threatened storm as the afternoon deepened, and the customers were thinning. Six weeks earlier, John C. Wyckoff had picked out and sheared his own tree, the biggest Canaan fir in the patch, 11 feet, right up to the ceiling of his living room. “I ended up selling it the other day,” he said. “A couple came in and they were looking for a particular tree, and the way they described it, I knew which one it was.”
He didn’t tell them it was his. Last Monday he took another one, a nine-foot Fraser fir that stood on display in the small shop the family sets up in a storage building for their brief selling season. “My job is to put on the lights,” he said, exhaling with a deep measure of relief. “That’s it.”
And when the Wyckoffs start planting again next spring, one of the fallow patches marked for a new crop of Douglas firs is on the back slope of the hill, in the farthest corner of the farm, the same spot where the first trees went in, 50 Christmases ago.
Links to more articles and blogs
Christmas Trees are a Year-Round Business for Belvidere Grower
nj.com | December 2008
Agriculture Secretary marks beginning of choose and cut Christmas tree season in New Jersey
countryfolks.com | December 2008
Wyckoff's Tree Farm - Still The Best Place To Cut Down Your Christmas Tree
pardonmyfrench.typepad.com | Demember 2007