Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
"Farmers are the biggest gamblers there are," Wyckoff sighs. "It's a labor of love."
The 170-acre farm in Belvidere, New Jersey has been in Wyckoff's family for seven generations; his family purchased the land in 1839. It operated as a self-sustaining farm for over a hundred years before Wyckoff's grandfather planted Christmas trees in 1958. The tree business has been a key part of the operation ever since, with the Wyckoff Christmas Tree Farm comprising 65 acres and selling some 6,000 trees each season.
Twenty years ago, Wyckoff left his job at a state prison to run the farm with his father. His family lives in a historic farmhouse at the foot of the farm, just miles away from a quaint town called Hope, where cottages with smoking chimneys and light-and-holly-strewn fences indicate the town comes alive during the holidays.
There are several other Christmas tree farms within a 20-mile radius, but locals are fond of the Wyckoff farm because it's a small-scale, family run operation—and because it encourages kids to wander the rows and rows of trees. The farm even has a designated area for tailgating, where families can park and spend the day grilling, playing football, and taking their time choosing the right tree. It's not just New Jersey natives who love Wyckoff though: Last year, the farm supplied trees to the White House after winning the 2013 National Christmas Tree Association contest.
Around 25 million Christmas trees are bought annually in the US, totaling $3.6 billion a year in revenue. Since Christmas trees are by definition a seasonal product, farmers must rely on just a few weeks of sales to bring in the majority of their annual income. To supplement his earnings, Wyckoff sells grain, as well as provides trees to wholesale landscapers year-found, but the Christmas tree operation provides most of his revenue.
"If it rained not only this Saturday but also next Saturday, we're easily looking at possibly losing 25, 30 percent of our yearly income," Wyckoff says as we climb a hill on his ATV, making our way around the farm to inspect his crop. "We've got three weekends to try to make enough money to carry us through for the next year and pay all of our bills. If you end up with an excess of trees, you can't just stick them in a bin to sell next year, like corn, and there's only so many trees you can sell a year."
Wyckoff works around the clock on his trees, planting, weeding, pruning, and fertilizing. Saplings are planted on a grid for optimal sunlight exposure, and Wyckoff regularly surveys his fields to determine which trees are ready for cutting. Each field at the Wyckoff farm is labeled by year; baby crops are three-year-old trees bought from local nurseries, standing barely to knee's length. A grown tree, which customers buy at seven to eight feet, takes another six to seven years to mature, and Wyckoff constantly monitors the crop to figure out which should be sold.
Today he's out with three local teenagers, who he employs full-time. One boy holds a ruler stick to a tree, which stands proudly at seven feet, waiting obediently for Wyckoff to take his chainsaw to its trunk. The team determines the tree's measurements and price (they charge around $8 a foot), and another boy tags it before it's cut and dragged down the hill for baling and netting.
Even if the actual land a Christmas tree farm sits on is passed from generation to generation, maintenance is no small expense. The price of machinery alone can run upwards of $70,000, and between the demands of fertilizer, soil testing, labor, fuel, property taxes, and insurance, the endeavor can prove truly costly. But after a farm has been operating for a few years—as it takes years to grow trees that are actually ready to be sold—the annual return can be $1,000 per acre. Wyckoff says he's satisfied with his operation—weather permitting, of course.
"We know we're never gonna get rich doing it," he says, "but at Christmas time, when you watch all these families come out and the kids running around the field and the families having a great time, that's what it's all about. It just makes it all worthwhile."
Observing the beautiful sprawl of miles of conifers, it's hard not to envision their imminent annihilation and the unavoidable tree graveyard that city and neighborhood streets alike become the week after Christmas. Still, Wyckoff says the tradition of buying a fresh tree outweighs springing for a plastic one, which he notes generally come from China, complete with mysterious, unregulated chemicals.
"I cringe at the thought of people using fake, plastic trees," he says. "To me, it'd be like giving my wife plastic flowers on Valentine's Day. It's not the same. With a plastic tree, every year you can hang the same ornament on the same branch at the same place and it's going to look exactly the same. With a real tree, every year it's a little bit different."