By Jamison Cocklin
With just 22 days left until Christmas, shoppers are checking off items on their holiday lists, travel arrangements are being shored up, and the lights and decorations are going up in full force.
At the same time, there are those working quietly behind the scenes. At points across Northeast Ohio, this weekend marks what will be the beginning of three very busy weekends.
As early as April, they begin planting 2-year-old seedlings, and as the year wears on, they maintain acres of farmland; mowing, fertilizing and controlling the weeds and insects that threaten their livelihoods.
All that work is an effort to turn a profit, and, more importantly, provide families with an experience they can remember and mold into tradition with each passing year.
They’re tree farmers, who provide between 25 million and 30 million Christmas trees annually to Americans nationwide.
In 1997, the federal agriculture census added Christmas trees to its tallies, and 10 years later, it showed that Ohio was ninth in the country, with 272,981 trees harvested and 594 venues with sales across the state.
The Mahoning Valley is no exception, with multiple tree farms in all three counties.
“Others do it differently, but this works in the Mahoning Valley,” said Mary Jan Perdulla, owner of Pioneer Trails Tree Farm in Poland. “People are looking for a value — it’s a Steel Valley tradition. Here, they can cut a 12- or 5-foot tree for the same price.”
Perdulla was discussing her operations as she stood wearing a stocking cap and heavy coat on a recent Monday morning looking out over her cold, 50-acre farm at 4222 Center Road.
Among the options at Pioneer Trails are Canaan Fir, Fraser Fir, Scotch Pine, Blue Spruce and several others.
By her own estimate, Perdulla does about 95 percent of her business in cut-your-own sales. Customers also can purchase precut trees from a lot at the front of the farm. Both options are a flat fee of $45.
Customers labor with a saw for different reasons, but it’s all in the spirit of Christmas, Perdulla said.
“When it snows a bit, people really get in the mood,” she said. “In the last five years or so, there’s really been a resurgence with new families looking to come out and start a new tradition.”
In a way, cutting your own tree amounts to “buying American,” as the saying goes. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, 80 percent of artificial trees worldwide are made in China.
Even if a precut sale is an All-American purchase, erecting a real Christmas tree and adorning it with decorations is a tradition that goes back to the 16th century. It wasn’t until the 1900s, however, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, that an overharvesting of evergreens gave rise to artificial-tree sales.
The first commercial tree farm is believed to have been started in 1901, when a farmer in New Jersey planted 25,000 Norway Spruces. Spruce trees are among the most popular at Christmas, with longer branching that accommodates ornaments more easily.
Ask Tara Fodor, who along with her husband, Jon, owns and operates Fodor Tree Farm in Poland, and she’ll agree with Perdulla — business is up and there’s a growing interest in what the couple does at 1606 E. Western Reserve Road.
“Over the past two or three years, we’ve made a lot of changes. We have a small farm, but it’s growing,” Fodor said. “Our house and farm sit close to Western Reserve Road; location is key for us. People drive by, and they want to know what’s going on. A lot of them just stop in because they see signs up for trees and want to know what kind of deals we have.”
Ohio’s tree farms are typically between 10 acres and 100 acres, unlike wholesale operations that sell to retailers such as Walmart in Pennsylvania and Michigan, where 300- to 500-acre plots are more common among these industry-leading states.
Still, the Fodors anticipate hiring more employees in the coming years. They took over the farm about five years ago, when Jon’s father, David, passed it on after 30 years in business.
Like Pioneer Trails, Fodor Tree Farm offers both precut and cut-your-own options. With a saw, customers pay $43, plus tax, for offerings such as Colorado Blue Spruce, Con Color Fir and Norway Spruce, among others. Precut trees, sold at a lot on site, carry a price tag starting at $45.
Perdulla said Fodors’ forecast for growth sounds about right. When seedlings are planted, it takes between six and seven years for the trees to mature. Typically, when customers purchase their Christmas trees, they’re between 8 and 12 years old, she said.
The Perdullas started planting on what was formerly a potato and hay farm in 1983. They didn’t start making sales until 1990.
“If someone starts today, they need the resources, land and equipment,” she added. “I would also say they need another income.”
Fodor’s husband, Jon, works full time in sales, while she occasionally engages in part-time consulting work herself. The farm, like Pioneer Trails, sells handmade wreaths and garland, too. In any event, both tree farms are hoping for a big turnout this holiday season.
“That old tradition of getting your tree on Christmas Eve — nobody does that anymore. The goal these days is to get it early so you can really enjoy it,” Perdulla said shortly after Thanksgiving. “We’re in the groove now, hoping the parking lot is completely full for the next three weekends.”