Crystal Spring Tree Farm earned national recognition in 2006 for providing the White House Christmas tree. Just four years later, the Mahoning Township farm is aiming to place another Carbon County tree in the White House.
Owner Chris Botek took his first successful step toward this goal at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, where his Douglas fir entry won "Reserve Grand Champion."
This earns him the right to compete in the National Christmas Tree Association's contest this August in North Carolina, where the national Grand Champion will provide the White House Christmas tree. The national Reserve Champion will place a tree in the vice president's home.
Botek first entered his family's trees into the Pennsylvania Farm Show in 2006. Though it was their first year in competition, they were named Grand Champion at both the state and national level.
"The first year we competed, we ended up putting the tree in the White House," said Botek. "It was a great honor the first time we did it, and it's not easy to win in Pennsylvania. We have another chance now, so I'm going to take my best tree to the national competition."
Crystal Spring entered eight trees at the 2010 Pennsylvania Farm Show and came home with seven ribbons. Besides winning first place and Reserve Champion in the Douglas fir category, Botek also placed first in container tabletop tree; second in Fraser fir, pines, "other spruces," and cut tabletop tree; and fourth in Colorado blue spruce.
Crystal Spring is co-owned by Botek and his parents, Francis and Margaret Botek. The farm began in 1964 with 25 acres in Mahoning Township and has since grown to include nearly 200 acres in Carbon and Schuylkill counties. The family tends to 15 varieties of evergreen trees.
In addition to the White House tree, Crystal Spring has also provided trees for Rockefeller Center in New York City and the state capitol tree in Harrisburg. The farm is open daily for choose-and-cut customers from the Friday after Thanksgiving until Christmas.
Chris Botek considers the Farm Show a good transition from the bustle of the Christmas season, the farm's busiest time of the year.
"You're winding down. It gives you something to keep your head in the game," says Botek. "I like the competition. It's not easy if it was easy, it wouldn't be any fun. You see all these beautiful trees and think, 'Wow, look at what we're up against.'
"To win Grand Champion in Pennsylvania is a feat, because there are some beautiful trees that come from Pennsylvania," he added. "There are a lot of great tree farms in Pennsylvania. There were great trees this year."
Many of these "great trees" came from this region, including Paul Shealer's entries from Evergreen Acres Tree Farm in Schuylkill County. Shealer was named Grand Champion for his Fraser fir tree. As grand champion, Shealer will also compete at the National Christmas Tree Association with Botek.
"I'm real good friends with Paul Shealer," Botek adds, noting that the competition will be a friendly one. Shealer was the first to congratulate Botek on his win, calling him to say that the two would be going to North Carolina together.
"Now the work begins of searching the farm to find the perfect tree. It's not easy to find that tree, but every once in awhile you find a tree that jumps out at you. That tree has to be the perfect size, the perfect everything to win," said Botek. "You have to take your number one tree to the national competition. You're not just competing with Pennsylvania farms you're competing against farms throughout the country."
Botek has begun the search for a tree to enter into the national competition but won't make his final decision until this year's growing season is over. There's still plenty of time for trees to grow and change before the August competition.
Judging is different at the state and national level. The Pennsylvania Farm Show judge examines trees within each category, from Douglas fir to Spruce, looking at the characteristics of each tree and scoring them out of 100 points. Trees are judged on their shape, taper, foliage, color, trunk or "handle," and density. All trees must be between six and eight feet tall.
Seven trees, the top in each category, are presented to the public during the farm show. Visitors vote for their favorite tree, and the trees with the most votes are named Grand and Reserve Champion.
"You pick a tree that you think would get a first place in your category. But you also have to pick a tree that if it got out front, the public would pick it," said Botek. "It's all personal preference. A lot of people want a big, full tree, but some people want a Charlie Brown tree. I would take a tree that the majority of people would like to have in their home."
At the national competition, trees are scored by a panel of three judges. The top trees are voted on by members of the National Christmas Tree Association.
"You're getting judged by your peers," said Botek. "At the state farm show, the public is going to pick a tree according to what they think is nice. Now you're up against other tree growers who will vote and pick the top trees. You're dealing with all the state champions, and the competition is at a whole different level. It makes the competition a little bit harder."
While the competition is tough, does he have high hopes for another White House Christmas tree?
"Now I'm nervous," he said, laughing. "I guess we'll find out in August."