Earning

Behind the scenes at a Christmas tree farm: 'We make most of our money in 7 days'

Lori, Brian, and Gordie Bell.
Courtesy Bell's Christmas Tree Farm

Days before selling season begins at the Bell's Christmas Tree Farm, and the biggest question is: How will the weather be opening weekend?

For the family-owned business, located in Accord, New York, it's a variable they have absolutely no control over, but it could dictate how their sales shape up.

"Like hardly any other business, we make most of our money in seven days: the three days after Thanksgiving and the first two weekends in December," Gordie Bell, one of the farm's owners, told Grow days before the farm opened for the season. "We have so many people on those seven days, we're probably making 90% of our money then. So if we have a bad snowstorm, forget it."

This year brings another challenge for Christmas tree farmers. With just 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that gives the Bells one fewer weekend in the all-important selling season. As for whatever Mother Nature might bring, there's not much the Bells can do other than make the best of it — and prepare extra hot chocolate if it's especially cold.

"We're dependent on the weather all year to grow the trees, and we're dependent on the weather to sell them," Gordie says. His son, Brian, adds: "Even more so for selling, maybe."

A year's worth of work for a month's worth of sales

Nestled in the Hudson River valley about two hours north of Manhattan, the 150-acre property has been in the Bell family for more than 100 years and was a dairy farm before the family switched over to growing Christmas trees instead in the early 1990s. Brian, 45, went away to college and worked as a truck driver before returning and becoming a fourth-generation farmer. Today, he's generally in charge of day-to-day operations.

Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, the makeshift parking lot fills up with hundreds of cars each weekend day, with families driving in from other states. Every day but Tuesday, which is the Bells' one day off, seasoned and first-time customers alike arrive, grab a saw and a sled, and head out on the farm to cut down a tree. Some linger to drink free hot chocolate in the gift shop, pick out a wreath made from leftover tree greens, or pose with Santa.

"The families are here because they want to be here. Typically everyone's in a good mood. They're happy and cheerful," Brian says, though he acknowledges sometimes customers squabble if they're unable to decide on a tree. Overall, though, shoppers enjoy the process, and "if they're having fun, we're having fun."

If they're having fun, we're having fun.
Brian Bell
Owner, Bell's Christmas Tree Farm

With about 24 acres dedicated to Christmas trees of various ages and sizes, the family guesses that they have about 24,000 trees planted — and for every tree sold, a new one is planted in the same place. Trees are their primary source of income, though they also sell hay, topsoil, and gravel.

"We have a lot going on all at once," says Lori Bell, Brian's wife, who also helps out at the farm. "Just like every farm, we have to diversify."

The Bells declined to share how many trees they sell each year: "All we can," Gordie jokes. They also say the figure is difficult to estimate because some trees are lost during the year.

The National Christmas Tree Association estimates that 25 to 30 million real trees are sold in the U.S. each year. Competition, at least in the eyes of the Bells, doesn't come from the stores selling pre-cut trees, or from the other tree farmers in the area: "We try to work together and help each other out," Brian says. It comes from artificial trees.

Luckily, people often grow tired of their fake trees. "Every year, people come here and say, 'I've had an artificial tree for 10 years, I want a real tree now,'" Gordie says.

Gordie and Brian Bell.
Courtesy Bell's Christmas Tree Farm

All trees, no matter the size or variety, are priced at $50 for the third year in a row, inclusive of sales tax. When contemplating price increases, the Bells say they try to strike a balance between covering their overhead and making sure locals can afford the trees. Selling all the trees for a flat amount also makes it simpler for the Bells, so they don't have to measure each tree.

While they've contemplated wholesaling trees, as a family business they don't have the time or resources — and worry that would mean they're in the business just for money. "We're doing it to make it a living, but we enjoy it," Brian says.

'From March to September, we're slammed'

The holiday rush can seem hectic, but "that's the fun part," Brian says. "The rest of the year is all the work." The short selling season is the culmination of months of getting-your-hands-dirty laboring by Brian and Gordie, who is 73.

During the holidays, the farm hires local high school students to help with tree sales, but the rest of the year's duties fall on the shoulders of father and son.

Immediately after the selling season ends, the post-holiday clean up begins. Brian and Gordie cut each stump from a tree that was sold and then grind the old stump to prepare for the spring planting. That alone takes up more than half the winter.

"So as long as the weather permits, they're right back out working," Lori says. Brian adds: "The only time it slows down really is if we get a lot of snow."

Every year, people come here and say, 'I've had an artificial tree for 10 years, I want a real tree now.'
Gordie Bell
Owner, Bell's Christmas Tree Farm

Once the snow melts, generally in late March or early April, the Bells begin planting. They source their trees from Christmas tree nurseries: When the seedlings arrive on the farm, they're already about four years old. The trees then grow for another seven years or so, until they're ready to be sawed down by customers.

"When we're planting the trees, I dig all the holes and then Gordie plants all the trees," Brian says.

"Every single one, on his hands and knees, kicking rocks as he goes," adds Lori. "From March to September, we're slammed."

In addition to planting, there's a lot of maintenance to be done year-round to keep the trees healthy. Brian and Gordie mow down the weeds and grass, pull pine cones off (they can drain energy from the tree and take away from the overall aesthetic), do some minimal spraying of pesticides, and then trim both the tops and sides of the trees.

"Occasionally, there's one that looks perfect that you can walk past, but every one gets looked at and almost all of them get sheared every year," Brian explains. "We like them to look like real trees. We don't want them to look like cookie cutter artificial trees."

How the family switched from cows to Christmas

Today, the farm is dotted with red street signs with names like "Dancer Drive" or "Cupid Lane." But there's still evidence of Shady Maple Farm.

Gordie took over the family business from his father and expanded the number of cows he was milking from 20 to 80. He had to wake up at 4 a.m. to do the milking before heading out to do all the field work.

"There's not much more of a stressful business — for no money," Gordie says, recalling the many Christmases and Thanksgivings when he had to attend to a sick animal. "I was working 90 hours a week to hardly break even."

In 1990, Gordie sold the cows and left the dairy business. The next year, "we came up with this crazy idea to plant some Christmas trees."

Courtesy Bell's Christmas Tree Farm

It proved a steep learning curve. With the help of some friends, the Bells planted 1,500 trees that first spring and lost about 80% of them. They've since attended classes, become members of the New York State Christmas Tree Association, and attended and even hosted conferences on the farm.

Gordie recalls "some lean years" that decade, because the Bells didn't start selling Christmas trees until 1998. They found ways to make ends meet, like selling firewood and gravel. The tree business takes a long time to get going: "You're burying money for seven years before you see anything," he says.

Each year, the family planted more and more trees, and business keeps improving. "Once we got in so far, we said, 'I guess we're going to be tree growers,'" Gordie says, laughing.

In 2010, the farm didn't have enough trees to keep up with customer demand, so the Bells planted an additional 4 acres, Brian says: "Now we have enough."

While life as Christmas tree farmers requires a lot of hard work, the Bells say it's far less stressful than being dairy farmers. And they're no longer tied to the farm every day, all year round. "We're having fun, and if we want to take a day off, we can," Gordie says.

'It's not all about the tree': How shopping became 'an event'

During the nearly three decades the Bells have been in the tree farming business, they've seen changing preferences among their customers. And part of this business is planning ahead, even years in advance.

"There's definitely been a trend toward people coming earlier in the season than they used to," Brian says, which means people will need a tree variety that holds its needles much longer. Typically that means a fir rather than a spruce. Trees that are more fragrant with softer needles also have become more popular, he says.

The Bells have also benefited from the rise of what's known as agritainment — farm-based activities like apple picking, hayrides, or corn mazes. Lori and her mother-in-law run the farm's social media, which she says is a "huge" way to reach new customers, along with word of mouth.

"It's not all about the tree. It's about bringing your friends and family with you and coming out for an event out in the country," Lori says. "We get to enjoy it, too."

Brian and Lori Bell.
Courtesy Bell's Christmas Tree Farm

This year, trees from Bell's farm can be seen at the Jacob Javits Center, a convention center in New York City, the Mohonk Mountain House, a Victorian castle in the Catskills, and at the Bronx Supreme Court.

As for their own homes? The Bells say they're not so picky.

"Lori and I typically get a Charlie Brown tree that's in the way somewhere," Brian says. Gordie adds: "There's not a tree out there that won't look beautiful when it's decorated."

"We don't want any of them to go to waste," Lori says. "I know they're trees but we care about them. They fought this hard to live, they need to have a purpose."

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