Nestled in Mahoning Valley is one of Lehighton's best-known secrets – Crystal Spring Tree Farm, the quiet farm with a big reputation.
Just four years ago, the owners of Crystal Spring presented an 18 1/2 foot Douglas Fir to First Lady Laura Bush at the White House. They earned this honor after winning the National Christmas Tree Association's annual competition in Oregon.
Last week, co-owners Chris Botek and his parents, Francis and Margaret Botek, traveled to the 2010 competition in North Carolina in an attempt to repeat this achievement. To their delighted surprise, they were successful. Their 8-foot Colorado Blue Spruce was named "Grand Champion" and the top tree in the country.
"To do it once is unbelievable. You've got the number one tree in the whole country," said Chris Botek. "For us to do it two times, it's a pretty big deal."
To get to the national competition, tree growers must win first or second place at their state competition. Botek earned his place in the national contest by becoming Reserve Grand Champion at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January. He traveled to (and competed against in) last week's national show in North Carolina with friend and fellow farmer Paul Shealer of Schuylkill County, who won Grand Champion at the Farm Show.
Just becoming eligible for the national competition can be a difficult task in Pennsylvania. Between 60 and 80 tree farms enter each annual Pennsylvania Farm Show.
After winning at the state level, Botek and Shealer began the process of entering the state competition. But before they could begin completing their paperwork and registering for the event, each had a tough decision – which tree to take?
Botek walked nearly every row of the farm, flagging his top 20 trees. Once each tree was carefully sheered and trimmed, he narrowed it down to two trees.
"I would watch them daily, because they change from the beginning of the season," said Botek, noting that the summer dry spell affected his top trees. "Finally, I took my parents, my wife, even my children to look at these two trees," said Botek. "Everyone picked the same tree – a beautiful Blue Spruce."
He knew he was taking a gamble by choosing a Colorado Blue Spruce. Unlike most Christmas trees, which are a deep green color, the Blue Spruce is a light blue – which might help the tree to stand out among tough competition.
"You want to take the best tree, but you also want to take the tree with the best chances to win," said Botek.
With their tree selected, it was time to prepare for the trip to North Carolina. Most families make a tradition out of bailing their Christmas tree and strapping it to the top of their car – but when you're entering a tree into a national competition, it calls for more careful handling. Bailing a tree can bend branches and alter the natural shape of a tree. To prevent this, the Boteks built an 8-foot tall box around the tree and carefully strapped the box down in their truck bed.
"I wanted to get that tree from the field to the contest with as little handling as possible," he said. "I don't think anyone else went to the lengths that we did."
They arrived in North Carolina the next day. With just one day left until the competition, it was time to settle in and start eyeing up the competition.
There were just 15 trees in this year's contest but don't be fooled by this number, said Botek. These trees were some of the finest in the nation, chosen for their top-quality shape, foliage, and color.
"It's nerve-racking. You think you have a nice tree, until you get there and see the other great trees," he said.
More than 400 members of the national association gathered to cast their vote for the competition. Each member choose what they felt was the best tree in its division, which included Douglas Fir, true Fir, Spruce, Pine, and "other." The top tree in each category went on to be eligible for Grand Champion – and the right to place a tree in the White House.
By Friday morning, Botek and Shealer had learned of their first place wins in their separate divisions. Botek had earned first place in the Spruce category, while Shealer was awarded first for his Douglas Fir. The two local farmers would face off against each other in the final competition.
The final vote was conducted by local members of the community, not tree growers. About 25 people gathered to look over the trees and offer their vote.
"They want the public to have their say, to let us know what they want in a Christmas tree," noted Botek. "The consumers are what keeps our industry going."
In the end, the public declared Botek's Colorado Blue Spruce their favorite. His gamble to show an eye-catching blue tree had paid off.
Crystal Spring Tree Farm is the sixth farm to earn "Grand Champion" a second time in the National Christmas Tree Association contest's 44-year history, and the first to win twice in Pennsylvania. Because Crystal Spring has presented a tree to the White House before, they have a good idea of what to expect. Several high-ranking officials, including the White House's head of grounds and the head of the National Parks, will likely visit the farm in early October to choose the tree that will grace the Blue Room this year.
The honor also comes with other recognition – such as being part of the HGTV annual "White House Christmas" program on national television. Botek was also featured on "The Martha Stewart Show" as a tree expert in 2006.
But perhaps the most exciting part of their journey this fall will be the presentation of the tree in Washington. As is tradition, the tree will be placed into a horse-drawn cart. Young children who are visiting are encouraged to ride with the tree as it is pulled up to the White House, where the Botek family will officially present the tree to First Lady Michelle Obama.
Several days later, the family will likely be invited back to see the decorated tree. The Blue Room tree is traditionally 18-feet tall, so that it stretches to the very top of the ceiling. Volunteers remove the Blue Room chandelier and wire the tree's lights directly into the ceiling, and spend hours decking the tree in fine decorations.
"The last time we saw the tree get decorated, and it was unbelievable. It was like watching Santa's workshop. You don't see anything like this on the TV presentation," said Botek.
Until that time, expect the workers at Crystal Spring to be moving at full speed. The farm is quickly reaching its busiest time of year as they prepare for the upcoming holiday season – and trips to and from Washington will occur around the time that their farm opens to the public.
"It's going to be real busy around the farm this fall," said Botek. "We're going to be unbelievably busy, but it is 100 percent worth it. This is the epitome of anything we could do in our business. This is the best tree in the country."