Christmas trees are a seasonal product, but the hard work of running a tree farm goes on all year round.
My grandfather, Sewell Chase, started Chase’s Christmas Tree Farm more than 50 years ago on his family property along the Nashwaak River in Marysville, N.B. With the help of his sons Gary and Paul (my dad and uncle), as well as several other family members and friends, he grew the business into a thriving one that is well known in the community today.
From left to right: my grandfather Sewell Chase, uncle Paul, brother Justin, dad Gary. Photo taken in 2002 when Sewell was 77.
My dad, Gary Chase, remembers working in the trees when he was as young as nine, in what’s called a “wild stand”: an area where lumber had been previously removed, letting new trees grow naturally, but inevitably too close together. Dad was tasked with taking a long-handled cutter and thinning out these trees so the remaining ones could grow in healthy and strong.
I asked Dad where the family interest in trees came from; he couldn’t pinpoint an exact time or circumstance that started it all, but he did remember hearing that his grandfather, Clyde Chase, had been involved with selling a few non-cultivated trees, before the family business really began.
My nieces Taryn and Afton holding up a tree in the yard.
“In order to make the trees thicker they scarred the butts — they took an axe and peeled some bark off two sides, and that stunted the growth,” Dad explained. “A cultivated tree is a lot thicker than a wild tree. When I was just a kid, [Sewell] was a member of the Stanley Christmas Tree Association. Some members took a trip down to the States, and that was the first time they ever saw sheared trees.”
Shearing means cutting off some of the new growth, causing the branches to grow sideways and to thicken, giving the trees the desired robust, triangular look. “The group discussion when they saw that was, ‘That’s crazy, there’s no way you can go around and do that to every tree every year,’ but that soon became the standard. Dad and the Stanley association were some of the first ones around here to get into yearly shearing, which is part of cultivating the tree.”
The guys getting a truckload ready to be shipped to the States last week.
Many of the trees grown and cultivated on the farm — which take on average 8 to 10 years to mature from when they’re planted — each year are exported as far as Georgia for lot sales and New Hampshire to be sold at a year-round nursery, while others are sold right here at home.
“We still export more than we sell locally,” Dad said. “We usually sell in the thousand-tree range through exports, and sell about 325 to 350 at the house.”
People can choose their trees any time, and many do decide to come during the fall and tag their tree to be cut at a later date. Other customers drop by in December and grab a tree within minutes, while others spend an hour wandering around, finding the perfect one. The busiest home-sales days are fairly predictable, usually falling on the second and third Saturdays in the month.
Grampy (Sewell) Chase standing next to once of his tallest trees.
“The most we’ve sold was about 125 in one day,” Dad said, looking through a notebook where he records the precise details, dates and numbers of the business.
Prices are set based on height (by the foot, in this case) and grade. The grading system used to be more formal, but now it’s set by tree farmers themselves, though most still use the same grading terms that the government once imposed. Canadian grades are “select,” “fancy,” and “choice,” which are top, middle and lower grades; the more commonly used American grades are “premium,” “number 1” and “number 2.”
My sister and brother-in-law’s tree last year with their greyhounds resting under it.
My grandfather, Sewell, “was the boss for a long time. He gradually turned it over to us, but he was still involved,” Dad said. “Even in his old age he would do grading for us; he was still grading and tallying trees onto the truck in his late 80s. And he’d drive around the roads to make sure we weren’t missing any trees — even last year.
“He’d always come out and check on us, visit us, have a little chat with us, no matter what time of year.”
Add-on sales items made by Paul. The birch reindeer are a huge hit!
Sewell, or “Grampy Chase” as my siblings and cousins and I call him, passed away this June at the age of 92. He was the patriarch of our family and the head of the business, and my dad has missed him in both roles this year. “I was out the other day in the woods, it was a really nice day, and I thought, ‘Dad would have loved the weather; he would have been out today.’”
Even without him the work continues, and it can’t be overstated how much effort goes into the farm: although it was always a part-time, supplemental sort of job, Dad said he and Paul — who are both in their 50s — each log 500 to 600 hours per year, and that they’ll likely do home sales as long as they’re physically able to.
Dad with his chainsaw in action
Dad listed several struggles inherent in the tree business: the long hours, the weather-dependent nature of it all, the difficulty in finding help with loading trucks on short notice, even the additional cost of having trees inspected for gypsy moths before they’re shipped south. But when I asked him what the most rewarding part is, he was quick to answer:
“It’s basically nice to be out in the woods,” he said. “If you’re out on your own on a nice day, you can listen to the radio and work on your own schedule. And home sales are always nice — you’re often meeting these people just once a year, so you get to know them. It’s nice when people really take enjoyment in picking their tree, cutting their tree.
“You’re making customers happy and providing them with something they enjoy that’s part of their tradition.”