Every year, without fail, Donna Cole knows it’s coming: A caravan of cars with a life-sized toy Rudolph leading the charge from his perch atop the first vehicle, followed closely, of course, by Santa atop a second car. At least three vehicles, maybe more, are filled each year with members of a Westfield, N.J., family whose annual holiday tradition kicks off with a visit to Cole’s Country Tree Farm, 40 acres which Donna and her two sons have managed since they planted it in 1980.
“I look for that every year; it has to be cool to see that coming down Route 78,” Cole laughs. “We have customers who come back every year from Staten Island, from Manhattan, from all over, and we’re able to watch their families grow, see their children bring their grandchildren. We try to make it an experience.”
Across the state, similar experiences are unfolding. Cole’s is one of 806 Christmas tree farms spanning 4,611 New Jersey acres, harvesting a total of 68,471 trees in 2012 alone.
In 2013, Belvedere’s John Wyckoff won the national grand champion competition for best Christmas tree in the country, and the honor of presenting the White House Christmas Tree to the First Lady and her children.
The first Christmas tree farm in the country was in Mercer County.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that agritourism really started back in the 1950s in New Jersey with cutting your own Christmas tree,” says Chris Nicholson, director of the New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers Association, adding that tree farms aren’t just an integral part of the state’s agriculture, they trigger a trickle-down effect.
“It’s amazing how much the choose-and-cut Christmas tree industry adds to the local economy. When families come to harvest a tree at one of our 150 member farms, they don’t just come cut a tree, they go to restaurants and diners, too. They shop in local towns. A lot of the farms hire local students and retired people to help with the harvest. There’s a huge economic impact.”
For 43-year-old Andy Alpaugh of Evergreen Valley Christmas Tree Farm, he enjoys passing on the same strong agricultural tradition his dad bestowed upon him back when the elder Alpaugh worked a tree farm in Englishtown.
“I think there are a lot of people who don’t realize what we do, which is a shame because they miss out on a lot,” Alpaugh says.
As with any kind of farming, it’s a complex balancing act but a rewarding one. It takes about seven years to grow a Christmas tree. During that time, Alpaugh and his crew shape each one – a process called shearing – yearly from the time they are waist-high. There are also weeds and pests to control, grass to mow, new trees to plant and old plants to clear. Christmas tree farms provide a renewable, recyclable resource that preserves green space while pumping crisp, fresh oxygen into the New Jersey air.
“I wouldn’t do anything else,” Alpaugh says. “I get to grow something, and then I get to imagine it going home and making an impact on a bunch of people at Christmastime.”