12/3/2011 10:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor
SINKING SPRING, Pa. — The DeLong family has been working in forestry and selling Christmas trees in the hills of Berks County, Pennsylvania, for generations. Intertwined with the development of their tree farm is a unique family story. Jean DeLong Custer, the current owner-operator of the DeLong Christmas tree farm in Sinking Spring, Pa., talked recently about how the family farm got started, as she prepared for the holiday season’s rush of customers looking to buy the perfect holiday tree.
It began with Jean’s grandfather, Charles Aubrey DeLong, a graduate of the 1906 Penn State forestry class, who had been a Merchant Marine and “wanted to put his feet on ground,” Jean said. His family lived on the 600-plus-acre private Nolde estate near Reading, Pa., where he worked as a forester for 17 years, managing the trees and learning how to grow Christmas trees. (Jean’s father and sister still occasionally present lectures there at what is now called the Nolde Environmental Education Center.)
In 1941, wanting to raise Christmas trees on his own, grandfather DeLong bought a nearby farm with a dilapidated barn. By 1942, he had planted the first of his own trees, Scotch Pines — a tree commonly utilized as the Christmas trees of the era, though no longer grown for that purpose these days — and converted the 1839 dairy barn into a house for his family. Charles’ first tree harvest was in 1949. Later, the Christmas tree market moved to Douglas Firs, a tree that takes 12-14 years to reach harvest height, and so he eventurally planted those and other types.
Jean’s 90-year-old father, Tom DeLong, lives with his wife, Ann, in a newer house on the farm. He still works with the trees on the farm when he is able. His own life path took him heavily into studying the science of trees, getting a degree from Duke University’s school of forestry, before heading off to World War II. After the war, he went on to get a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in the field, also from Duke, where he also met Ann.
“He brought his science to the farm,” Jean said.
Tom began planting Blue Spruce, Concolor Fir and Western White Pines at their property, all the while commuting 60 miles a day to a fulltime job in Harrisburg at the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters as the supervisor of the state’s tree nurseries.
Tom’s attention to detail at the farm included making sure the property looked groomed and well-kept at all times. “It’s important to customers,” he said. The prettier and cleaner the farm looks, the better the marketing is, and it speaks to the quality of the experience, said the DeLongs. “He’s still after that,” Jean said, and noted that because the family lives on the farm that makes a difference too.
For years, Tom took trees to the Pennsylvania Farm Show to compete. “I have a box of blue ribbons,” he said.
Apparently growing up on a tree farm can get in the family blood; Jean’s only sister, Nancie, lives nearby and operates her own “tiny” tree farm.
Jean has brought a fresh approach to the management and marketing aspects of the business. She prefers to sell only the highest quality trees, including providing both small and large trees to such high-end venues as Longwood Gardens in Chester County. Jean added on a new sales barn to use during the Christmas season, and is marketing to customers in a much broader area. Though many buyers come from Berks County, Jean now advertises to buyers from Lancaster and Chester counties. She said many repeat customers drive all the way from New York, Philadelphia and Delaware to purchase trees at DeLong’s farm.
These days the farm grows and sells Douglas, Fraser and Canaan Firs, White Pine and Blue Spruce trees, among others. About half the trees are sold wholesale and half retail.
Pricing can be tough, Jean said. She prices their trees based on quality, not on height, as part of her goal is to become known for only premium quality Christmas trees. However, in order to preen out some of the less-than-ideal trees growing on the farm, two years ago Jean began grading and pricing those as “economy” trees.
Putting in the new sales barn was a big addition (it will also double as a potential horse arena for Jean, who is a longtime horse owner), but it has proved to be a highly positive move.
“It took a while to figure out the location for the barn, but we placed it at the intersection of both roads,” said Jean, which added visibility to the Christmas tree business. She noted that after a new highway, Route 222, was opened a few miles away, business increased 15 percent within the first year.
An old-time 1949 Ford truck at the sales barn helps with marketing too — adding an old-fashioned appeal to the farm that customers often comment on. The Ford still runs well because the DeLongs have continued to maintain it and use it around the farm on a regular basis. Tom said it was originally used on one of the state nurseries where he worked decades ago. When it went up at auction later, his was the highest bid — about $18 or $20, he recalled. Then, he had to get a special license just to drive the truck from the state nursery to the farm.
About three times a year, the farm needs an influx of workers, so Jean’s college-age son and school friends often help, arriving to assist with planting, pruning and harvesting season. Jean’s mother, Ann, cooks meals for the entire group. In all, about 15 people are needed for harvesttime. Jean said since the 2008 recession, they have had no problem getting parttime workers.
She herself is outside pruning trees every day at 5:30 a.m. from June 3 onward so that they can finish before Labor Day. They believe it is better to prune in the heat of summer before the tree stops growing, and they hand-prune with special Japanese forged pruning sheers which are much lighter and stronger than other pruners. For harvesting, the DeLongs have set up a system where the trees are handled as minimally as possible, staging the cutting and baling processes out in the field more efficiently.
Sitting together one afternoon, Tom and Jean ruminated about the challenges of needing to work fulltime off-farm, while still operating a busy Christmas tree farm requiring care year-round.
“There are critical periods,” Jean said, “especially with small trees and seedlings.” When you are working fulltime, she said, farm work can only happen on weekends, which, combined with weather conditions, can interfere with those important periods.
But starting at Thanksgiving weekend, when customers begin to arrive, the sales barn is stocked full of well-rounded, nice-looking cut Christmas trees and greenery.
“My grandfather, father and I were all old’ when we took over the Christmas tree farm,” Jean laughed, as she explained that she came back to take over the farm in 1989 at age 55 after working for years in broadcast media and then with Case New Holland. She retired from CNH in April.
Jean is now thinking ahead about the property and the land and about the possibility that her own son may decide to return to the farm one day. But most of all she is concerned with the conservation of the land in the future. Though she continually looks for ways to make the operation more profitable, she said, “Christmas trees are a way for the land to stay in good shape.”
The DeLong Christmas tree farm is located at 777 Gouglersville Rd., Sinking Spring, Pa., online at www.delongchristmastreefarm.com or 610-401-0173.