The past few months have been a flurry of success for local tree farmers at state and national competitions. But few area residents realize that the recent accomplishments of Crystal Spring and Evergreen Acres tree farms are just one more win in a long history of triumphs.
Since 2000, these two farms have made their mark at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, winning Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion numerous times. They've gone on to compete at the National Christmas Tree Association's annual convention six times between the two farms, earning the top title of Grand Champion - and the right to place a tree in the White House - three times in the past decade.
So what does it take to raise a nationally-recognized Christmas tree? Is there a reason that our region has produced several award-winning trees?
Growing award-winning trees doesn't happen by accident, said Rick Dungey, a representative of the National Christmas Tree Association.
"Just to be in the competition means that you know how to really grow trees, from seedling to market," he said. "It means that you're at the height of your profession, at the height of your skills as a tree farmer. You really know what you're doing as a Christmas tree farmer."
Tree growers Chris Botek of Crystal Spring Tree Farm in Lehighton, and Paul Shealer of Evergreen Acres Tree Farm in Auburn, both agreed that it takes hard work to produce great trees each year - and even more work to produce award-winning trees.
"The growers in this area, and I'm trying to encompass Carbon, Schuylkill and Columbia counties, all of us are really doing our best to pay attention to detail," said Shealer. This means good weed control, good disease control, and using only top-quality seed for each generation of trees.
"I think the growers in this area are paying close attention to genetics, and paying attention to good genetic stock," he said. "The genetic research that has gone into the Christmas tree market has been phenomenal. A lot of our trees are coming from second and third generation tree orchards. We have fewer low quality trees, and far more high-quality trees coming into the market."
Shealer prefers to find great trees at a young age and carefully prepare these trees for future competitions.
"As we go through our fields, we always have our eye out for 'that' tree. Very often we will pick out that tree at three to four feet tall," he said. These trees receive special care and attention, and are often sheered and groomed by hand. "The quality of tree that comes from this process is unreal."
"With that said, the tree that I took to competition last week was not one of those trees," he added. "I knew I was going to take a Douglas Fir to competition, and we started searching. We went through about 3,000 trees, scanning the field. This particular tree stood out for us and it met all of the criteria that we were looking for. This was just one of our production trees - this was not one of our hand-groomed trees."
Botek typically chooses his competition trees as he approaches each competition, saving the special care and hand-grooming for the final season of growth.
"When we took our tree to Oregon (in 2006), it just glowed," said Botek. "There are a lot of nice trees, but there are some trees that you just can't stop looking at."
The best tree, according to Botek, is full but not bulky, with just the right coloring for its species. Of course, it also has to meet a strict list of contest requirements such as height, trunk or handle size, and shape.
For both growers, the competition serves as a valuable reminder that the "perfect" tree is in the eye of the beholder - and that the final opinion of a tree's beauty comes from the families visiting their farm.
"Growers have an image in their mind of what they expect a perfect tree to look like, and that's one side of it," said Shealer. "But we're not trying to cater to the grower - we're trying to cater to the demands of the consumer. If the final decision is made by the consumer, I think it's a pretty good judge of your tree. It has the eye appeal of both the consumer and the grower."
Both local growers were found to be "appealing" by the public last week, when Botek won first place overall and Shealer secured third place. While the two compete against each other often, they remain close friends.
"We were both ecstatic" to have made it to nationals, said Shealer. "We had been palling around together all week, and when the final announcement was made we were cheering each other on. Had I won, he would have congratulated me just as well."