A Family Affair at Snickers Gap

12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

Wolff Clan Kicks off 32nd Year of Christmas Tree Farming

ROUND HILL, Va. — The weather — bright, crisp, but not too cold — got the sales season for Northern Virginia Christmas tree growers off to a booming start.

Happy shoppers looking for that perfect tree flocked by what seemed to be the thousands to the Wolff family’s Snickers Gap Tree Farm in far northwest Loudoun County, a stone’s throw from the crest of the Blue Ridge and Jefferson County, W.Va.

Jim Cox and his family headed back to their Sterling home with more than a tree — he bought a 15-pound bag of freezer beef and a package of bratwurst from Hannah Thomas’ Glenowen Farm stand.

Hannah’s family farm is just next door. She decided two years ago — after watching Finn Wolff run Finn’s Snack Shack and add to the family income with sales of hot dogs, soft pretzels, sodas, water and chips — to see how her family’s registered Angus beef would sell.

“I thought it would be awfully cool if I could also contribute to the family business,” Hannah said. “I set up with a scale and a hand-written sign and sold out, about 20 boxes.”

The Wolffs invite two local winemakers to set up tasting stands as well. The aim, Steven Wolff said, is for the buyers to have a good time — and come back next year.

“It was really a great start to the season that makes us gear up as a retail operation from zero to full throttle with 18 employees in one day after 11 months of concentrating only on growing trees,” he said, summing up the first retail weekend.

Roger and Mary Wolff bought the 120 acres in northwest Loudoun County, Va., in 1966 but didn’t start planting trees and set up housekeeping on the property until the early 1980s.

“My husband liked the high ground,” Mary said. “He was a geologist, and the land was inexpensive because it’s not tillable, except the lower part. My husband’s choice was the elevation.”

His doctorate in clays was useful to her in other ways, Mary said — she practiced wood-fired pottery for many years, exhibited her work at the Franz Bader Gallery in Washington, D.C., and taught ceramics at American University for 20 years.

There was a lot of on-the-job training those first years, said Steven, who, since his father died Jan. 1, 2007, commutes from his Salt Lake City home to oversee the farm. When the growing year culminates in the three to four weeks of on-farm sales to the cut-your-own public starting the day after Thanksgiving, the whole family, including some far-flung cousins, is on the team and working hard.

His father started with Douglass fir, Steven said, the first to grow that species in Loudoun County where Scotch and white pines dominated at the time. Steven and his mother took over managing the business after Roger’s death and have replaced all the pines — the farm now offers Douglas fir, blue spruce and Norway spruce.

“Deer make a lot of decisions for us,” Steven said.

He will discontinue planting Norway spruce because the deer love to rub on them and ruin their growth. He will plant 500 concolor fir next year and see how they thrive.

It will be another seven years, under ideal growing conditions, for those seedlings, 3 to 4 years old when planted, to reach market height. But the concolor, also known as the white fir, is native to the mountains of western North America, thrives at elevations from 900 feet to over 3,000 feet, and should do well on the south-facing slope of the Blue Ridge.

Roger Wolff’s original plan put the trees on roughly one-acre plots on a 4-foot center. That will support up to 47,000 trees, but the density makes it well nigh impossible to get equipment between the rows, and unless the farmer can do some thinning, the trees crowd each other out.

The cut-your-own market wasn’t well established in the early to mid-1990s, Steven recalled, so in the late ’90s, with 20,000 salable trees ready to go, his father started wholesaling to the precut lots.

Like most things on a farm, that had an upside and a downside: It moved a lot of trees, and it thinned the rows. It also, by early 2000, had stripped the 40 tree-friendly acres of mature trees. The cut-your-own people, a market that was just starting to flex its consumer muscles, went elsewhere.

“That was a difficult thing to recover from,” Steven said. “It took until 2005 to get people coming back.”

One of the perennial challenges as inventory recovered in the last few years — aside from the usual weather, fungi, pests and deer — “is trying to have enough supply on a continuous basis. We don’t want to sell all the trees one year and not have any the next. It’s very difficult to recover from that,” Steven said.

He will close up shop for the year a week before Christmas if he needs to preserve the balance of the crop to ensure there are enough trees for the next year.

He has also reduced the number of trees. Each plot, as close to one acre as the terrain permits, will be planted with one species. Steven has already increased the spacing to a 5-foot centerline, he said, and is expanding that to 51-w feet.

“We’re going to cut back a lot (the 5-foot center reduces the number of trees per acre from 2,500 to 1,250), but we’ve also found some new spaces to plant. We’ll get back to about 36,000 trees.”

To replace the 4,000 that go home each season to a suburban living room or atrium, the farm replants 6,000 to 7,000 new 3- to 4-year-old seedlings. That will account for the ones that have been cut, for mortality and for opening up new fields.

Every year in mid- to late March, Steven drives to Berkey’s Nursery just south of Erie, Pa., and buys the year’s supply of seedlings. Berkey’s will ship by UPS, he said, but if the trees sit in a truck that heats up in the sunlight, many die. He drives them home in the dark hours and gets them right into a cold storage room until he’s ready to plant.

As with any farm, life at Snickers Gap follows the rhythm of the seasons. January and February, after the hectic pace of the pre-holiday sales season, are quiet. In early March, they start cutting stumps level with the ground — the cut-your-own customers don’t do that. From late March into April, they plant. Every day. When it rains a lot, as in the spring of 2012, the trees thrive — but so do the fungi. They have to catch the first hint of fungus and get it sprayed before the buds are damaged.

From mid-April to mid-May, they work 10 and more hours a day, seven days a week, “just to keep up.” Then there’s farm maintenance, fences to repair, machinery to repair, painting, chores and watching for weeds and diseases.

The farm avoids pesticides because “once you start you can’t stop; it kills all the bugs, not just the ones you didn’t want and you’re into a cycle of spraying forever.”

Then there’s the all-important shearing.

“From June through the end of August, that’s all we do, every day. We all shear from early morning till noon or 1, whatever we can stand heatwise.”

Mary Wolff, in the early years of the venture, took a Virginia Tech course in shearing. Her background and long experience with the trees are invaluable, Steven said.

Then it’s time to move equipment and supplies — tractors, sprayers, two tree shakers, two tree balers, saws, ropes — out of the barn and convert it to a holiday store. The customers are coming soon.

The weather, early springs, new pests and deer drive a lot of what they do, Steven said. In five years, he said, “I’d like to say we’ve found a new tree species that’s working for us that the deer won’t eat. I’d really like to have three, maybe four species. And I’m concerned about the weather getting warmer. I know guys down south who do a totally different type of tree, more like a cedar. That’s what they can grow. That’s my biggest concern.”

For a listing of cut-your-own Christmas tree farms in northern Virginia, visit http://pickyourownchristmastree.org/VAxmasnorthern.php. For West Virginia farms, visit www.pickyourownchristmastree.org/WVxmastrees.php.

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