It’s always been a tradition in my family to have a Christmas tree and for some reason, I’ve never been quick to change this tradition. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of being a kid or the fact that it helps me get in the holiday spirit or maybe it’s the fact that I love design so decorating a tree is a thrill. Either way over the years I’ve often thought about how this could be contradictory to some of my values.
Was buying a fake one the best way to go? I thought about all the PVC (a byproduct of petroleum) and various other products they are made from. Also, the fact that they are most likely not made stateside where there are stricter environmental standards. This link from a Christmas Tree Farm Association does a great breakdown. So, for now, I’ve opted out.
As I kept thinking I thought about the fact that these are farms. Again, symbiotic to many things in our lives. These are not being taken from the woods where I’d love to keep as many trees as possible. So why can’t these be grown the way I want my food or fiber without harsh chemicals? Not only for my benefit but for the benefit of the community to avoid water runoff and the effect that chemicals can have on bees or various other creatures. These farms do exist, but they are few and far between. Most tree farms are located in North Carolina or the Northwest due to the climates especially when growing Fraser Fir. One call led me to a fellow who did just this, but he retired years ago. He was kind enough to pass along another farm name, but to no avail, the number on their website was out of order.
Luckily, I heard from Hope Christmas Trees right here in Tennessee. They primarily grow White Pine due to the climate, but I was still stoked to take the trip up and learn more. Check out our interview with Michele Goguen:
Was farming always in the family and what lead to the start of Hope Christmas Tree farm?
Michele: We were NEVER farmers of any kind until we purchased this property in 2016. But the previous owner started a boarding school for troubled teenage girls, and they started the tree farm as a way of teaching the girls responsibility, hard work, etc. We found out about the farm through a mutual friend and used to come here to cut down our own trees.
After about 3 years, the owners decided to retire, and sell the farm. Someone offered them FULL PRICE for the farm, but when they questioned him as to what his "vision" for the farm was, he admitted he was going to tear every tree down and build a giant house on the land. They refused his offer!
Meanwhile, they had hired my husband (a professional painter) to come paint the house; I came out to look at it with the kids & nine days later we owned it. Our vision was this; that we could maintain the farm as a way of not only providing a sustainable product but also a way for families to come and connect as they picked out their tree, cut it down together, and enjoyed their time here together.
Back in the Spring we planted our very first "Family Garden" on the property, where we planted several kinds of flowers and vegetables, as a way of getting our kids interested in gardening as a way of providing their own food, and in some cases to learn how to market the items for a profit while also donating some to those in need.
How many trees are planted every year and are they all the same species?
Michele: When we purchased the property, there were nearly 3,000 trees planted already. We will be planting approx. 200 more this Spring, and tentatively another 200 in the Fall. The trees take YEARS to grow to a size that is marketable, so this will be an annual event for us. We currently have 3 species; White Pine, Blue Spruce, and Canaan Fir. The White Pine grows fairly quickly (full size in approx. 5 years) where the other two grow much slower (8-10 years for a marketable tree).
What time is best for planting and is there any other yearly maintenance that goes into maintaining the trees?
Michele: Spring and Fall are the prime planting times so that it's not too hot or too cold. This will give the seedlings their best chance at survival. We basically just keep the property mowed, including the main aisles between trees. We do not disturb the small rows at all during this time, because if you were to even nick a tree a little bit, it would die. So, we wait until Fall, and then just weed-eat around the thickest areas.
We don't use any type of herbicide or repellants, so the more we leave the trees in their natural state the better they seem to grow. Some farms trim their trees, shaping them into the "perfect, tree-shaped" forms.
Depending on the height of the tree maturity time differs, can you share with us how long it might take a 5-foot tree to grow vs. say a 10-foot tree?
Michele: A 5-foot tree would take about 5 years to grow if it's a White Pine, whereas a Blue Spruce or Canaan Fir of the same size would take 8-10 years!
When we purchased the farm almost 3 years ago, there was a whole section of 7-8 foot trees and those same trees three years later are over 12 feet tall! It will be another 8 years probably before we see Blue Spruce or Canaan Fir ever reach 10 feet tall! Not all species grow well in Middle Tennessee.
I’ve heard that growing trees can be especially tough without any pest treatments, so why did you decide to grow in this manner? What benefits have you seen?
Michele: The previous owners had chosen to grow the trees all-natural, using no pesticides or herbicides or colorants (yes, some farms SPRAY PAINT their trees green If they have brown areas on them!). We decided to continue this growing method because we feel the more natural the trees are, the healthier for the trees as well as for customers who choose to take them into their homes.
When we first bought the farm, there were actually a lot of bagworms on the trees. These pests can kill a tree if not taken care of. However, instead of treating the trees for these pests, my husband had the idea of simply using a leaf-blower on the trees. This method blew the bagworms right off the trees, and we haven't had an issue with them since! We even take the time to blow-off every single tree before it is cut down in order to do our best to ensure they are pest-free, yet remain natural and untreated.
Have there been any struggles in growing in this way, do you expect a certain amount of loss per year?
Michele: We haven't experienced any particular loss with the way we grow the trees without treating them. It's actually a lot less work to let them grow naturally than to go through the trials of treating, maintaining those treatments, testing, etc. We've found that when we leave them alone, they tend to really take care of themselves with very little maintenance!
As you are one of the rare farms growing in this way, have you seen more interest in folks wanting trees to be grown more naturally? Does this have anything to do with allergens, etc.?
Michele: We've found that people really enjoy the fact that our trees are grown naturally. With so many chemicals being added to foods, drinks, etc. it's a breath of fresh air for them to know there are still farms who choose not to do this.
Definitely, it seems that people are drawn to us for this reason. Also, the White Pines are a very allergy-friendly tree, because the pollen they produce in spring is pretty much gone by winter due to the amount of rain and colder temps. They also have very little scent, so not only are they friendly for the allergy sufferers, they're also friendly for people who may be sensitive to strong smells so often found in other species of trees.
Should there be any concern of pest coming into the home due to the trees being grown without various treatments?
Michele: So far, we have not encountered any concerns over pests entering someone's home by way of the trees being grown naturally. Because we don't use any chemicals, birds, rabbits, snakes, deer and other animals make their homes on our farm and tend to take care of any pests that may arrive. It really is like a natural food chain, with each animal taking its turn in the cycle of eating pests, etc. By the time late Fall comes, and it's time to start allowing customers on the property, most pests have been "taken care of" (eaten) naturally through these means.
Is there an organic certification process and would this ever be something you’d consider doing?
Michele: We would absolutely consider going through the certification process to be deemed an organic farm! We are still learning about all that this entails, to make sure we are meeting all the requirements to become certified.
We don't see any reason why this should be a problem when the time comes, because we legitimately do not do ANYTHING to the trees.
We just have to investigate a little further to make sure we're doing all we can to obtain this elite certification and to maintain it once we get it. We just are not 100% positive yet what the process will be.
What would you say is your favorite or most surprising aspect of running a business of this nature?
Michele: Well, for one we love the fact that we are growing an all-natural product. We love that we aren't exposing anyone to unnecessary chemicals, so in turn, no one is taking unnecessary chemicals into their homes, or around their children and/or pets.
Another favorite aspect is all the FAMILIES we've met so far while doing this! Not only are we running a tree farm, but we're also foster parents who've adopted all of our children from the state's custody. We are meeting other foster families, and other members of our community that we would not have met otherwise. We love that we can tell people honestly that we are doing our best to provide them, and our own family, the most natural and healthiest product we can!
Lastly, what do this time of year and a Christmas tree mean to you?
Michele: This time of year, is so special to us. As I said, we've adopted all 6 of our amazing children from the foster care system. In our 12 years of fostering, we've had 42 children in our home.
So as our family gathers around our Christmas Tree, we hang our own ornaments as well as some that carry the names of some previous foster kids on them. We pray for each child as we hang their names on the tree. We also pray for each and every family who've come out to our farm & taken their own trees home with them, that they will be blessed and safe & have a prosperous New Year. It's a "gathering" for us to be around the tree together, and it's the most special time of the year for all of us to reflect on all that we've been given during the year. And we wish the same for all of our wonderful customers and neighbors.
We definitely came home with a tree and got a bit overzealous with the size – 10 feet to be exact. All in all, it looks great, but as Michelle mentions it does indeed have a different shape than what you would get from a store.
As this was our first all-natural tree we were not sure what to expect, but we’ve had it for almost a week now and the worst thing we found was a Praying Mantis egg case. My boyfriend has decided to hang it outside in the hope that it will hatch come spring as they are a beneficial insect – a gardener’s best friend!
You can check out more from Hope Christmas Trees here.