Tree Grower Faces Convergence of Christmas, Farm Show

12/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

LANSDALE, Pa. — The Christmas season seems to come earlier every year. Shoppers start noticing wreaths and the sound of “Sleigh Ride” around the mall before Halloween, maybe even in September.

Now the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which opens Jan. 4, 2014, is creeping up on Christmas.

Jay Bustard of Bustard’s Christmas Trees doesn’t think it will be difficult for his family to be ready for Farm Show right after the busiest season of their year.

“We have good employees,” he said.

Jay Bustard and his brother Glenn Bustard run Bustard’s Christmas Trees. Their mother, Virginia Bustard, is also involved.

The reigning Farm Show champions for both tabletop tree categories, the Bustards have gotten more serious about the Farm Show in the past few years.

In 2007, they started entering the competition every year after sporadically exhibiting for 20 years.

They have also started picking young trees to groom as potential Farm Show entries. That’s a better strategy than picking out one of the Christmas season’s leftovers, the brothers said.

Jay and Glenn Bustard’s uncle and grandfather started the Christmas tree business in 1929. Before that, the elder Bustards had run an apple orchard and popular cider press.

“People used to line up to get their cider pressed,” Glenn Bustard said.

The Bustards sell 6,000 to 7,000 trees each year through a combination of wholesale and retail. They operate three retail locations, including their main store at Lansdale, which is on land the family has owned since 1849.

The Bustards grow trees on 80 acres, three acres of which are cut-your-own. The farmed acreage is split across three sites: a rented farm in Lansdale, a farm in Carbon County and a site in New Brunswick, Canada.

The family tries to make Christmas tree shopping easy and sells trees as close as possible to the time of cutting. They are able to control freshness because they are both the grower and seller, Jay Bustard said.

They continually drive between the retail outlets and the Lansdale farm to cut trees throughout December.

They need a little more planning for the New Brunswick site, which was selected because balsam firs grow there naturally. In fact, balsams grow there like the multiflora rose does in Pennsylvania, taking over bare or unused ground, Glenn Bustard said.

That species “was pretty much the original Christmas tree,” Jay Bustard said. “Balsam is making a resurgence. People are going back to their roots.”

The farm sells the familiar blue spruce, Douglas and Fraser firs, along with rarer varieties like Korean firs, with needles that are dark green on top and silvery on the bottom, and concolor fir.

The farm can produce a 6- to 8-foot Douglas fir in about seven years. The exotic varieties take longer because, without decades of best practice research, the Bustards have to experiment to find the right techniques for the trees.

They also offer Victorian firs, which are regular Christmas trees pruned to be more open. Some customers like the extra space Victorians provide for ornaments, Glenn Bustard said.

Jay Bustard agreed that a customer-centric approach is important. “Everybody’s always looking: What’s new and improved?” he said.

To that end, the Bustards’ operation is the only Pennsylvania farm involved in a trial of Nordmann firs spanning six U.S. states and Denmark.

The trees in the trial are descendents of genetically superior mother trees from the Caspian Sea region of Asia. The tree is popular in Europe and is showing promise in the United States.

The Bustards’ 3,000 Nordmanns are looking particularly valuable on wet soil. One such plot lost 90 percent of its Douglas firs. Thirty percent of the plot’s blue spruces, the species usually used on damp spots, also died.

The Nordmanns were just fine.

“They can tolerate the Pennsylvania clay,” Glenn Bustard said.

The trees also have a stiff branch, which is important for holding decorations, Jay Bustard said.

In recent years, the Farm Show has added a class for exotic Christmas trees, like the Nordmann fir, as growers look to diversify their offerings.

That diversification includes not only tree species but also value-added products like wreaths.

The Bustards showed the champion wreath at this year’s Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association competition.

That earned them a spot at the national competition. The wreath made for that competition placed third.

According to the state association, Pennsylvania has the second most Christmas tree farms of any U.S. state and is the fourth largest producer of trees in the country.

“That makes competitions like the Farm Show tough,” Glenn Bustard said.

How does one make a champion wreath?

“To be honest with you, it all really starts in the field,” Glenn Bustard said. The family has learned to set aside trees for wreath production rather than just taking limbs from the lower quality trees.

The cutters and wreath makers also make a difference. Jay and Glenn’s mother, Virginia Bustard, made the winning wreaths.

“As long as I can remember, she’s been making wreaths,” Glenn Bustard said.

“I think it’s really important for farm producers to be involved” in the Farm Show, Jay Bustard said.

It is an opportunity to educate the public and learn from other growers, he said. “Any time a farm producer can get in front of the consumer, I think that’s a win-win situation.”

The Farm Show is improving as a marketing venue for Christmas tree growers.

Glenn Bustard, who serves on the board of the state Christmas tree association, said Farm Show leaders invited the association during his time on the board to move from a side hall to the main hall.

The move to the main hall showed that the Farm Show organizers believe Christmas trees are an important part of Pennsylvania agriculture, he said.

The main hall gives the Christmas tree growers more space and greater visibility. The previous space was too small, but now the growers can “make it look nice and spread it out a little bit,” Jay Bustard said.

Still, the Farm Show is tough for Christmas tree growers to use as a marketing tool.

“It’s not like they look at your first-place tree and then come buy one from you next week,” Glenn Bustard said.

Most Farm Show visitors won’t buy a Christmas tree for 11 months after the show, Jay Bustard said.

In addition to the Bustards making a name for themselves with wreaths and tabletop trees, “we have quite a following for big trees,” Glenn Bustard said.

Part of that success with tall trees comes from being in affluent Montgomery County. Many customers own million-dollar homes with cathedral ceilings that can fit 15- to 18-foot trees.

A few of the large trees also go to interior designers who serve businesses, Jay Bustard said.

“A lot of people think you’re just there for one month,” but just like other farmers, Christmas tree growers are busy all year, Jay Bustard said.

The land to be planted gets a soil test and then is subsoiled, rototilled and planted in the spring. The already-planted trees must be sheared and fertilized, and the grounds must be sprayed with herbicide and mowed.

The young trees also have to be covered with rotten-smelling Liquid Fence to keep the deer away.

“I’ve counted as many as 31 deer on this property,” Jay Bustard said.

The owner of the rented Lansdale farm does not allow hunting, and two schools are nearby. The deer seem to have noticed the farm is part of a safe zone for them, Jay Bustard said.

Growing Christmas trees is a fun business, but it’s more than that, Jay Bustard said. “You get to help the community.”

Christmas tree cutting often becomes a family tradition for customers, and the farm donates 20 trees each year for Girl Scouts to decorate in the township park. The cut trees left over after Christmas become mulch for the township parks.

Like many Christmas tree growers, the Bustards participate in Trees for Troops.

They started out donating the trees to the program themselves. Now customers can also help by buying a tree for a reduced price or getting a card to send to military families, who receive the trees on a need basis.

This year’s donated trees are tentatively intended for Fort Stewart in Georgia.

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