12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent
HANNIBAL, N.Y. — Jack and Faye Beckwith had not planned to farm Christmas trees. They purchased their 57 acres in 1980 with the idea of raising beef cattle and hay.
But after a few years of struggling to keep the herd fenced in, plus the daily rigors of caring for the cattle, they sold the herd.
In 1985, the Beckwiths planted their first Christmas trees, with help from their children, Jack, Noelle and Scott, and continued to plant more each year until they opened the tree business to the public in 1995.
The Beckwiths both have farming backgrounds. Faye grew up working for her uncle on his egg and beef farm after school as her first job. Jack lived next to a berry farm where he frequently helped out. Their early farm work seemed to draw them back to agriculture as adults.
“I’ve always felt that agricultural families are strong families,” Faye Beckwith said.
Both the trees and the operation at Beckwith Family Christmas Trees have been growing ever since the mid-’80s. All three of the children live nearby and help out at the farm, along with the Beckwiths’ six grandchildren.
“It’s wonderful to have them all pitching in and helping out on the farm, helping with customers, making wreaths and driving tractors,” Beckwith said. “We’re blessed to have them within a stone’s throw.”
Their older son, Jack, operates a contracting business. Daughter Noelle works in the real estate business with Beckwith, and Scott investigates crime for the sheriff’s department.
Though the trees aren’t a roaming menace to the neighborhood like the beef cattle, they do require some care year-round, with planting replacements, shearing and mowing between the rows. The family must also keep buildings and equipment functional and market the business. Word-of-mouth advertising helps quite a bit.
Beckwith advises those starting an agricultural business, “People fail to realize that it takes three to five years to start a business. People try for a year and are gone. You can’t just put an ad in the paper or a sign on the property and expect people to come. You have to create something different so people will come.”
Since they founded the business, the Beckwiths have tried to keep building on it, with help from each member of the family. Each year after the first frost, the Christmas tree business ratchets up. The family creates wreaths and kissing balls, bakes cookies and waits on customers. Instead of just a place to buy trees, the Beckwiths have made the farm a family day trip destination.
Of course, picking the perfect tree from 35 acres of trees is the main attraction on the 180-acre farm. Customers may select from balsam fir, Fraser fir, Colorado blue spruce, Douglas fir, Scotch pine, concolor fir, grand fir, Canaan fir and Nordsman fir.
The Beckwiths also have added free hayrides down Candy Cane Lane across a stone bridge and near the woods; a heated historic railway car from the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad, circa 1872; a replica 19th century caboose to house its gift shop; free hot chocolate and treats at Christmas Tree Station and indoor displays at Jingle Bell Junction, another building on site.
Once visitors find the perfect tree, the Beckwiths trim the trunk, drill the tree, which helps it stay upright, and shake off loose needles before wrapping. They have learned what customers want, and as people come in asking for different items they don’t carry, such as tree stands or icicles, they add them to the lineup to make shopping at the tree farm more convenient.
In response to customer demand, the farm began selling pre-harvested trees, decor and gifts. As a way to use up trimmings, they began making wreaths and became really good at it. They have been named the National Grand Champion Wreath makers by the National Christmas Tree Association. They ship wreaths — and trees, too, from 4- to 7-feet high.
Some of the trees they ship go to troops overseas through the Trees for Troops national program.
In addition to the tree farm, the Beckwiths have three other businesses between them. They both operate Freedom Real Estate, she has taught Zumba fitness classes for two years, and he’s been a barber for almost 50 years.
“Be versatile and be ready to branch out to other things,” Beckwith said. “It helps to have other things going to keep busy.”
A festively trimmed tree is part of many home’s Christmas celebration.