What It's Like to Run Coleman’s Christmas Tree Farm
Debbie and Jack Coleman reflect on some of the joys and challenges of their second-generation family business.
Jack and Debbie Coleman are the second generation to farm their 330 acres. Jack's father began planting spruce and firs there in the mid-1950s.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
As far as we know, the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree began in Germany sometime in the 16th century. Today, Christmas trees are decorated all around the world—in Japan, Lebanon, Brazil, even the South Pole science station. In the United States, two-thirds of all households put up a tree, from 12-inch window trees in urban apartments to the 94-foot Norway spruce that towered over Rockefeller Center in Manhattan last year.
Of all those trees, about half are artificial. The others are almost all grown on farms. Farmers in all 50 states grow Christmas trees on properties from small suburban farmettes to massive wholesale farms that encompass thousands of acres. Just east of Odessa, down Del. 299, through the marsh that floods the road after a good rain, hidden behind a long wind break of Leyland cypress, lies Coleman’s Christmas Tree Farm.
Debbie and Jack Coleman are the second generation to farm the 330 acres. Both the farm and the trees began with Jack’s father, William, who started it as a dairy operation in 1932. In the mid-1950s, when the state began a planting program to create more cover for wildlife, William began planting Norway spruce and Douglas firs, trees able to flourish in the Mid-Atlantic climate. As the early trees grew, William began cutting a few for family members each year. Over time, he began to sell a few more to friends and neighbors. By the mid-1980s, when Jack took over the farm, the tree acreage had expanded. Today, somewhere between 60 and 70 acres are dedicated to trees.
For those of us who don’t grow Christmas trees for a living, there is something nostalgic, and perhaps a little bit magical, about the idea of owning a tree farm. And from the outside, it looks like a pretty simple way to be a farmer—plant trees, let trees grow, cut trees, open the gates sometime around Thanksgiving and invite happy families to come choose their tree. No daybreak feeding of livestock, or handpicking acres of strawberries, or trying to keep whole orchards of oranges warm during snap freezes.
The truth is very different. Christmas trees require daily labor over the eight years it takes for a seedling to become an 8-foot tree. The rows and space between the trees need to be mowed, and the trees must be treated for mold and needle cast, a fungus that causes them to shed all their needles. Insects have to be controlled. Once a year, each and every one of the 70,000 trees has to be sheared by hand, like sheep, to help shape them. Also once a year, new stock has to be planted.
The Colemans, like many midsize Christmas tree farmers, don’t start their plants from seeds. They purchase 4-year-old seedlings from big wholesalers, often in Pennsylvania and Michigan, though some years the seedlings come from the West Coast. The Colemans raise Douglas, Caanan and concolor firs, which grow well in Delaware’s climate.
Douglas firs, with short, stiff needles, are native to the American West, though they adapt so readily to new conditions that they have been planted all over the world. Canaans are native to the East Coast from Labrador in Canada to Virginia and are relatively new to the American Christmas tree market. They get their name from the Canaan Valley in West Virginia, and are similar to fraser firs, with short, dark needles. Concolor, or white firs, have long, soft needles and a strong citrusy smell. They are also native to the western United States. All three species, apart from their ability to flourish in the wet, humid, low elevation of Delaware, can retain their needles for more than two weeks once they’ve been cut.
The Colemans start their trees as 4-year-olds because, at that age, the trees are stronger and hardier than young seedlings. “Babies struggle,” says Jack Coleman. “When we get them at 4, they survive.”
Farmers struggle as well. Whether they’re cattle ranchers or corn planters or Delaware Christmas tree farmers, they are all subject to the caprices of weather and the onset of disease or infestation. Corn and soybean farmers need hundreds of acres to turn a livable profit. Livestock requires, on average, an acre of land per animal for forage, along with access to five or more gallons of water per animal per day. Here, where land is worth more to developers than it can often reap in crop production, farmers have gotten creative.
Area orchards offer all kinds of enticements to customers: hayrides, apple picking parties, petting zoos and farm stands. The Colemans offer an ice cream shop, a bake shop, a Christmas shop and greenery for sale. Santa turns up on weekends to hear children’s wishes, and when the weather is good, there are both wagon and helicopter rides.
They’ve also planted about 10 acres of pumpkins. From late September through the end of October, they open the farm for pumpkin sales, hayrides and bonfires. Pumpkins, they learned, require bees to pollinate, so they also cultivate bees.
And every year, from October through December, they welcome 6,000 to 8,000 schoolchildren who tour the tree and pumpkin crops and meet the Colemans’ extensive collection of birds. They have Blue Hens, along with a variety of exotic chickens, geese, pheasants, turkeys and a number of peacocks. Near the pond, bald eagles often perch in the treetops, allowing lucky class groups to see our national emblem in the wild.
“The kids are very excited,” Debbie says. “Most of them have never been to a farm.”
It’s no surprise. There are only about 2,500 farms in Delaware. Most raise chickens, corn and soybeans, and wheat. Fewer than 15 raise trees. In southern New Castle County, much of what was farmland 20 years ago has been turned into housing developments and retail space. Around the country, family farms have been sold to developers or, in big farm states, to corporate farms, as the next generation opts for a different professional life.
The Coleman farm won’t be. Regardless of the choices of the next generation of Colemans, the farm property is part of Delaware’s Farmland Preservation program, ensuring that it will always be a farm. The Colemans are very proud of this, just as they’re proud of the trees they grow.
“Farmers can only raise about 50 crops in their lifetimes. I recognize my own trees,” Jack says. And well he should. Every plant or animal that farmers produce is the result of hard labor and painstaking care, a product of the specific soil and conditions it was raised in. Every farmer is proud of what he or she has raised.
The holiday season is a busy time, but it’s worth taking an afternoon to go walk through rows of fir trees that have flourished in rich Delaware soil. Watch the children smile shyly at Santa, and admire the big flock of white geese, who are quite certain that they—not the humans—own this farm. Get a cup of cocoa and a cookie, and think for a moment about the years of time and effort and love that have produced the tree that is now tied to your car roof.
And take the candy cane they’ll give you when you leave. Charlie Brown had a point when he kicked the aluminum tree. Christmas tree farms may not succeed on nostalgia and magic, but they produce it anyway.