Value-Added Grant Helps Farm Include Nature Trail in Holiday Experience
UNION BRIDGE, Md. — He’s been planting trees, creating unique Christmas traditions and hosting thousands of families for 38 years on his 250-acre Christmas tree farm.
Michael Ryan’s passion for nature stems from the fact he grew up in New York City and rarely saw trees, except when he went on family vacation.
Wanting to wake up to nature rather than high-rise buildings inspired him to invest in the Frederick County, Md., farm and the 215-year-old historic home in 1965. He worked in the manufacturing business to supplement the farm’s income while raising three boys.
The farm officially kicked off its first season of selling Christmas trees in 1974, and today Ryan operates the farm with the help of his wife, Mary, and his sons on weekends.
For more than 35 years, Ryan has concentrated on making Clemsonville Christmas Tree Farm an exciting and interesting place for families to come and get their Christmas trees.
During the past year, he has been developing a nature maze trail with matching funds received from the Maryland Value-Added Producer Grant Program, which was launched in 2010 by the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp (MARBIDCO).
In 2011, Clemsonville Christmas Tree Farm was one of 13 agricultural businesses in 10 Maryland counties that split $195,000 in grant award investments to implement value-added projects on their operations. The 2011 grants assisted recipients in diversified ag businesses with projects and activities ranging from making cheese and ice cream to enhancing opportunities for agritourism.
And that’s just what Ryan had in mind when he envisioned a nature trail for customers to enjoy.
“Basically, what we are trying to do is build a fun place for families to come and get their Christmas tree,” Ryan said. “The nature trail is very nice and has a stream that runs between it that never dries up.”
To receive the matching grant, Ryan needed to complete an application for MARBIDCO and explain how his nature trail would benefit the public.
MARBIDCO established the value-added grant program as a way to encourage Maryland’s agricultural producers to expand or diversify their business operations by installing capital assets to make or support a product that is “value-added.”
According to MARBIDCO, a by-product of this effort is to spur job creation and retention in rural and urban-edge communities. Eligible recipients must be crop or livestock producers or processors, agricultural cooperatives, seafood processors, or timber products processors.
Selected applicants may receive up to $20,000 to assist with purchasing or installing farm structures and major fixtures, livestock and seafood product processing facilities, fruit or vegetable processing facilities, timber or wood products facilities, and manure digesters.
Each grant recipient must also provide at least a 100 percent cash match.
Clemsonville Christmas Tree Farm received a $2,500 grant to create the nature maze trail. Ryan said they needed to bring in a backhoe to complete the half-mile trail, a quarter-mile on either side of the stream. While completing the path, Ryan was careful not to disturb some of nature’s beauty along the trail.
“Some of the trees along the path are over 200 years old,” he said. “Some are oak, shagbark and hickory. We like to tell folks that the trail is what America looked like in the early 1700s.”
Ryan has positioned large logs and bolders along the trail for visitors to relax on and there’s also a picnic table for families to enjoy during nice fall and winter days. The trail is kept nice with seasonal mulching and seedling plantings, along with mowing and grooming.
“I always have said that I want this place to be fun, memorable and a thrifty experience,” he said.
The nearly four-decade business has noticed a significant decline in Christmas tree sales over the past 15 trees as a result of more families opting to use artificial trees. Ryan is hopeful that trend reverses with so many Christmas tree farms offering more than just a tree, but an entire Christmas experience and tradition. The Ryans offer the nature maze trail, refreshments, a renovated old bank barn with gifts to purchase, a snoring Santa Claus and more.
They have constructed America’s largest living Christmas wreath, created a giant 50-foot limestone bolder Christmas tree and give tours through the farm’s 18th-century historic home.
While providing an agritourism destination to truly bring out the seasonal spirit, Ryan still focuses on the care of his Christmas trees.
No matter what the size, all trees at Clemsonville Tree Farm are only $20. Ryan believes his one price, any size tree helps families out during the holiday season and encourages them to come back the next year.
“Some families and groups have been coming here all 38 years, like the Lucey family group of Gaithersburg, Md.,” he said. “He leads his entourage of more than 50 family members and friends to Clemsonville to find the perfect trees to celebrate the Christmas holidays.”
The Ryans specialize in fir, pine, spruce and cedar trees. They also offer fresh balsam fir wreaths and swags and additional greens for holiday decorating. Today, at 79, and with 100,000 Christmas trees growing on his property, Ryan hopes to continue providing a fun place for families to come during the holidays as long as his health permits.
“The nature maze trail and our other special attractions is a way for us to provide agri-entertainment,” he said. “We want families to come here and spend a day in the country and enjoy themselves.”
For more information about MARBIDCO’s programs, visit them at www.marbidco.org or to find hours and additional information about Clemsonville Christmas Tree Farm visit www.clemsonville.com.