Eye on Agriculture: The Journey From Seed to Selection: Good trees take time

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By Sue Henninger

Tompkins Weekly

 

For Mark Ramos, the seed of an idea was planted when his airline flight was delayed at the Detroit airport.

Waiting patiently, he happened to catch an interview with Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver on the popular television show “Leave it to Beaver.” Beaumont had subsequently launched a second successful career as a Christmas tree farmer in Minnesota.

“That always stuck in my mind,” said Ramos, a graduate of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University.

Eventually he purchased 85 acres on Shaffer Road in Newfield. Seeing that his land contained a field with a southern exposure, perfect for growing trees, he thought to himself, “Maybe this will work.”

In 1991, Ramos paid $500 for 1,000 fir trees, He chose Fraser, Balsam and Concolor (white fir) because they are aromatic, and have a good shape and excellent needle retention. He learned about tree farming through doing it, with the help of his former partner and a mentor to whom he’d been introduced by a friend.

According to Ramos, Joe Stevenson, who owned a Christmas tree farm in Montour Falls for years, was a true collaborator, a “wonderful guy who helped everyone out.”

Initially, tree farming was a second job for Ramos, who was employed by the United States Department of Agriculture (based at Cornell University) for 30 years where he worked in insect pathology. Today he is retired from Cornell and “90 percent of the tree operation,” occasionally assisted by a competent college student, Luke Nye-Smith.

“Christmas comes but once a year” said English poet Thomas Tusser. But for Christmas tree farmers, raising the trees the public clamors for annually is a year-round job. The cycle begins when Ramos purchases a young tree from Bosch’s Countryview Nursery in Michigan, his longtime supplier.

“He’s a quality provider with fair pricing and I’ve learned that you get what you pay for,” Ramos explained.

At the point-of-purchase, the tree has already spent three years in a seed bed and two years in a transplant bed. It will require another eight to nine years on the Fir Farm before it’s mature enough to be cut down. For every tree the farmer cuts down in December, three new trees are planted the next spring, usually in April.

“The ground can’t be too muddy or too dry,” Ramos elaborated.

Next he starts the mowing, which continues all summer long since he doesn’t use any herbicides, relying instead on horse manure. Trees are sheared between August and March, and the late fall months are spent cutting brush, finishing the trimming, and getting his sales barn in order for his customers. Ramos, who has had Parkinson’s disease for 20 years, said that the physical activity he gets from taking care of his trees is the best medicine he’s found.

There are numerous reasons to choose a freshly-cut tree over an artificial one.

“It looks so much better in a room,” asserted Ramos, a member of the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York. “It smells good and fills an empty space. You can’t take your eyes off it.”

Before they’re placed in a tree stand in someone’s home, live Christmas trees benefit the environment in other ways by providing shelter and habitats for wildlife, and a cleaner atmosphere for all living things – converting carbon dioxide to oxygen. Plus, their green expanse is nice to look at, Ramos added, noting that he has a special grove of some of the first trees he planted that he will probably never cut down. When the holidays are over, live trees can be chipped and made into mulch rather than being sent to a landfill where they linger for years.

Besides touting the benefits of live trees, the Association organizes talks for members during the winter months and tree farm tours during the summer.

“We’re all looking for the perfect tree!” Ramos laughed. “One that grows fast, won’t be eaten by deer, and doesn’t require any shearing.”

He’s quick to add that growing trees takes time, patience, and a little luck because, contrary to popular belief, trees don’t grow overnight. Those who think live Christmas trees should be cheaper, probably don’t understand how much time and energy goes into raising a tree that will be used for a few months at most, he noted.

Ramos has learned the hard way how quickly all his efforts can be destroyed. Despite fencing, deer remain a huge threat to his trees.

“They eat my Fraser firs like they’re candy,” he observed.

Additionally, the bucks rub their horns on the tree trunks, stripping their bark and ruining them for sale. Other menaces include soil and fungal pathogens, like the Swiss needle cast that wiped out more than 2,000 trees and certain types of insects (mites). Ramos recalled that he “took a hit” during the recent drought, losing a substantial amount of young trees with undeveloped root systems. However, he remains optimistic. Farming is not for the fainthearted, he said, but it’s fun and allows him to spend time outdoors acquiring new knowledge about things he’s interested in.

With a spectacular view, a farmer who loves what he does, and all the necessary equipment, including saws and a baler, it’s no wonder that a visit to the Fir Farm can be a great experience. All you need to bring is yourself, said Ramos, who sells between 200-250 trees seven days a week each year to a clientele ranging from seniors to young couples looking to purchase their first live tree. Many customers, some of whom he’s come to know quite well, have made the trip to his Christmas tree farm an essential part of their holiday traditions for over a decade.

For directions and business hours, visit the Fir Farm on Facebook at Facebook.com/FirFarm.

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