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Volume 13, Issue 49 ~ December 8 - December 14, 2005

Crop of the Month: Christmas Trees

Bob Scrivener’s tobacco land evolved from roll-your-own to cut-your-own

by Carrie Steele

Blazing summer’s not usually the time we start considering our Christmas trees, but on his 58-acre farm in Prince Frederick, Bob Scrivener braves hazy humid weather to nurture young seedlings for their holiday destinies.

Because he’s mowed and shooed deer away for months and years, this season we can cut ourselves a live evergreen to crown with a star, string with lights and surround with presents.

Scrivener, a gentle man of medium-height with bright blue eyes and soft countenance, is the third generation of his family to farm this land. His grandfather bought the farmland in 1903 to grow tobacco. His father inherited the land, which he passed to Scrivener, who turned from gowing tobacco to tannenbaums, in addition to raising cattle and hay.

Christmas trees, he finds, make a farm merry.

“Everyone’s so excited; some people walk right out and know what tree they want. Some take longer,” Scrivener said.

Quitting Tobacco

“I started growing tobacco in 1965 with my cousin,” says Scrivener, 63. “We all worked together and helped each other.” Now he’s joined on his land by his three children, with their houses and seven children.

“We grew tobacco until 1989,” says Scrivener. Then he got discouraged. “We could never depend on the price,” he says, and when it was time to harvest his crop in the barn, he needed three able pairs of hands to help.

Because he quit tobacco one year before the state issued the tobacco buyout, he couldn’t qualify.

“That didn’t bother me,” says the humble farmer. “I’m glad to see other farmers get the help.” Very few people still raise tobacco, he says. “Though my wife’s brother still raises it. He’s a diehard.

“It’s a dirty job, but it’s a pretty crop and rewarding,” says Scrivener, who remembers cutting tobacco in the hot, steamy summer sun of Julys and Augusts.

Taking Up Trees

Heeding the advice of a friend, Scrivener tried his hand — and land — at Christmas trees. The former crop of nitrogen-rich alfalfa hay is good for the trees, he says.

“It sounded like a good thing to do,” said Scrivener, whose farm is now one of some 260 Christmas tree farms in Maryland and one of some 22,000 farms nationwide, according to 2002 farm census data. Those Maryland farms make up 3,200 acres, a small but substantial contribution to the acres nationwide dedicated to growing holiday evergreens: 446,996. Maryland annually harvests some 100,000 trees; that’s little compared to our sister state Pennsylvania, which harvests some 1.7 million in a year.

Scrivener turned tree farmer in 1995, when he bought his first seedlings. In 2000, he sold his first Christmas trees. He devoted two acres to evergreens and typically sells 100 to 150 of the white pine and Douglas fir each December. Come the new year, the cycle starts anew, as he orders another 500 seedlings to replenish his stock.

“I almost stopped planting white pine because they’re hard to get started and hard to train,” he says about the tree that tends to grow any which way. Douglas firs, however, earn his praise as a tree that “grows up in a nice Christmas tree shape.”

Tree sales usually kick off the Saturday after Thanksgiving; then he takes stock after the second week in December to see how long he’ll let people take saws to his trees.

“A lot of people want a tall 10-foot tree,” he says, and that means leaving some trees to grow tall for future years.

Scrivener spends the rest of the year tending to his trees, mowing between them about once a week in summer and trimming in late June or July.

“That’s the worst part,” he says, “to make corrections on them by trimming. I’ve seen a blackbird come along and break the top right off. So I have to go and trim it to get a limb corrected.”

There are also smaller attacks he has to fight off: bagworms, which Scrivener sprays for.

Walking among his crop, which dots the hillside like a young forest, he pulls a tree to him to snatch a bagworm’s pecan-sized case of dead needles off of the trunk. Four-year-old grandson Kolby darts off and retrieves one from another tree to show his grandfather.

Deer’s teeth and antlers, too, are enemies he guards against.

“Deer browsers can take the top off of a little seedling, and I have to replace it,” Scrivener. On taller trees, he can shape other branches up to replace the deer’s midnight snack. It’s good for business that when trees get about waist high, they begin to grow quickly. Getting them started is the worst thing.

On the larger trees, he says, “The bucks try to scrape their antlers.”

His trees take seven to 10 years to reach harvest height.

Your Christmas tree is “a long-term investment,” he says.

Making Christmas Merry

“Some people sell them by the foot, but customers know when they get here that it’s $35,” says Scrivener, who prefers to simplify by making all trees cost the same. Family members had to pester him to raise his price to $30 in past years, and now to $35. That’s as high as he’ll go, he says. That means he’s selling for less than most. Last year, Americans paid on average $42.50 for a tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

“There’s too many people trying to beat you down this time of year,” says Scrivener about holiday prices. “And I don’t want to be in competition with the Lions Club or the Fire Department.”

As for his own Christmas tree, he lets his wife, Carol Ann, pick the evergreen and he puts it up. Here’s how he does it.

Cut a half-inch off the bottom of the tree when you get it home. Then keep it in water and you’ll keep a fresh tree, he said. “They drink it up fast.”

Get one of his last trees this season, daily noon-5pm at Scrivener’s Choose and Cut Christmas Trees, (take Rt. 2-4 to Stoakley Rd., across from Calvert Memorial Hospital; turn right and continue one mile turning right onto MI Bowen Rd., farm is on the left), Prince Frederick: 410-535-0151.

Cutting Trees in Chesapeake Country

Cutting your own trees puts you in the minority of Christmas tree owners in the U.S: that’s 19 percent compared with the 81 percent of Americans who buy pre-cut. Your reward is a helping of holiday spirit and the freshest tree possible.

• Dent Creek Farm:

White pines; Bring a saw. NOON-5pm Su @ 1266 Deep Cove Rd., Churchton (Anne Arundel County): 410-867-2438.

• Friendship Forest:

White and scotch pine; Douglas and Canaan firs; white, Norway and blue spruce. Hayrides each Su, 1-4pm. Thru Dec. 18. 9am-4pm Sa; noon-4pm Su @ Friendship Forest; from Rt. 235 turn onto Friendship School Rd. in Oakville, turn right onto Friendship Ct., Mechanicsville (St. Mary’s County): 301-373-8184;

• Friendship Trees: Firs:

spruce and pine trees plus roping and wreaths. 1-4:30pm daily; weekends 9am-4:30pm @ 6950 Rt. 778, off Rt. 2, between Friendship and Owings (Anne Arundel County): 410-741-5712.

• Hilltop Farm:

Long-needled white pines and Douglas firs. noon-5pm WThF; 9am-5pm SaSu @ Rt. 4 to Lower Pindell Rd. to stop sign, Lothian (Anne Arundel County): 301-855-8431.

• Mas-Que Christmas Trees:

9am-4pm SaSu @ Forest Drive east, right onto Spa Rd., right onto Masque Farm Rd., Annapolis: 410-224-4233.

• Nicholson Tree Farms:

Cut your own Douglas firs, or take home a pre-cut Frazer fir from their West Virginia farm. 8am-dark daily until Dec. 23. @ Nicholson Tree Farms, Rt. 258 to Little Rd., Bristol (Anne Arundel County): 301-855-4243.

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