If there’s something in common among the Brandywine Valley region’s Christmas tree farms, it’s that their owners like to see things grow. And true to form, many have successfully grown their trees and their businesses. That hasn’t been easy in an industry that’s been gradually constricting. Take, for example, the number of growers in the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association. Long-standing members recall when that figure was well over 600. Now, the organization confirms that there are fewer than 160 members.
Even so, the PCTGA website continues to claim that Pennsylvania ranks third in the number of Christmas tree farms in the nation—more than 1,400 of them. At Old Stone Farm in Lewisville—all of a post oﬃce and a crossroads for Routes 841 and 472—Mark and Mary Gruber have grown Christmas trees since 1992. Mark’s father, Al, grew trees in Newark, Delaware, and he’s grown them since he was 15—50 years. Though he ran a less sophisticated and smaller operation, Al was able to pay for his son’s engineering education at the University of Delaware. In turn, Mark has paid for his three children’s college educations with tree sales.
One of those kids, Evan, is studying soil agriculture at Penn State University. He’s involved in the tree business, with 10 acres of his own on the family’s 75-acre farm. At 34, Evan represents a young man in an older man’s world. “For new farmers to get started, it takes capital,” he says. “My grandpa had a successful career already, so he had capital to get started. Young people don’t have that time. It’s why the moms-and-pops are disappearing, so you’re going to have bigger and bigger farms growing more and more trees. Just buying the land requires capital.”
Old Stone Farm usually sells out at some point every year, cutting 300–400 trees a weekend in mature fields until all the available options are gone. “We’re expanding because other people are getting smaller or getting out,” says Mark, who retired from his engineering career earlier this year. “But it takes seven years to expand. You can do it one year at a time, but it still takes that much time to see the results of expansion. It’s gradual.”
What goes in the ground every spring (allowing roots to expand through summer and fall) has changed drastically. In the 1970s, it was all Scotch pine—something most local growers haven’t planted at all in the past 30 years. Popularity gravitated toward the Douglas fir, and now the most popular tree is a Fraser fir—and interest is spiking in exotic firs. Old Stone Farm features mostly Douglas, Fraser, Concolor and Canaan firs, many of which are visible through wide second-floor double doors in the 150-year-old restored barn overlooking the acreage.
Old Stone Farm was assembled in three strategic land acquisitions, one of which prevented a townhouse development. Its southern border is the Mason-Dixon Line. “The idea was always to develop the business as a sustainable farm,” says Mark, who also runs a successful year-round cider operation there. “For a small farmer who’s growing corn and soybeans, that’s hard. It takes a specialty—one that can be sold directly to the public. And Christmas trees are good for that.”
For Mary Gruber, it can’t be much more satisfying to know that her custom wreaths—some 20 of them, which measure six-feet each in diameter—have been landing as decorations around the outside of Philadelphia’s City Hall over the last four years. “One day, we got a call, and they said they needed 20 large wreaths,” Mark recalls. “We said, ‘Okay. Where?’ They said, ‘Philadelphia.’”
By the time Christmas Day arrives, the Grubers are seriously “Christmased out.” The family celebrates quietly at home, though they could afford to travel and get away. “We don’t go to the Bahamas or anything,” Mark says. “There’s no hype here—it’s a true farm. There’s no Santa, no hayrides. The owner doesn’t even have a white beard. We truly market it as a family farm.”
For more information on the upcoming Christmas tree season, visit Old Stone Farm’s website.