Christmas tree farm brings joy, hardwork to owner
John Snyder built his Christmas tree farm in Pocahontas County from the ground up, learning as he went.
"I started from scratch. I had an uncle that grew hemlocks, I always thought that was a neat thing that he did up at his farm. As far as knowledge and how to do it, I didn't know anything. I joined a Christmas tree growers association, the West Virginia Christmas Tree Grower's Association, and I learned a lot, an awful lot. A couple other growers helped me. If you have to and you want to, you learn a lot of stuff," joked Snyder.
Snyder planted his first seedlings in Pocahontas County in 1976, slowly expanding his tree farming operation at different locations over the years.
"It wasn't here, we had a five acre tract of land, that's where we started. We got one crop off of that. We had another little small farm and planted some trees there. We bought this one in 1985. We never did live where we grew our trees before. This was our goal, build a house on a place where our trees were right there. I planted the first seedlings here in 1985," said Snyder.
"If the trees are six feet apart in rows, you can plant 1,200 to an acre. We planted probably four acres of trees. We had white pine, that's all we had at the first place."
Now Snyder's Christmas Tree Farm grows several varieties of trees, some more suited to this area than others.
"We have white pine, Fraser fir, blue spruce and Norway spruce. If I had to do it all over again, I'd plant nothing but Fraser fir. They have beautiful, soft, two-tone needles. The seed source for these comes from Virginia and North Carolina, they grow above 3,000 feet in the Blue Ridge Mountains, that's where they grow naturally. You couldn't plant a Fraser in Charleston and expect it to grow. These are higher altitude trees. They do real well here, no pests, so far," said Snyder.
Christmas tree farming requires patience and careful planning. The trees can take anywhere from 5 to 9 years depending on the species.
"It takes white pine about seven years. Fraser fir eight or nine years. Norways probably eight years, blue spruce probably about the same," said Snyder.
Snyder is quick to share his experience with anyone interested in growing Christmas trees.
"You can't have water on your roots with these trees. They like a rich soil, they like a lot of rain but they like a well drained soil. They can't sit in clay. This is ideal, we slope off to the northeast so the soil stays moist. I only lime the soil and fertilize the soil around the Fraser firs, we hand spread it. Granular lime too, it makes the needles bigger. Our soil is ideal for white pine, I've never had to do anything with the white pine," said Snyder.
Snyder is also full of helpful tips for when you take your tree home.
"The best thing to do is to shave off a little bit of the bottom of the tree. The sap will cause a cap at the bottom of the tree where the trunk is if they've been cut and laid out. You just want to cut that cap off, cut off an inch of the trunk. Then the tree can take in water. Fraser firs take in water from their needles so you can actually take a hose and spray them down a little bit and keep them really fresh," said Snyder.
The venture hasn't always been easy according to Snyder. Pests, disease and drought are just some of the problems he has faced over the years.
"I've lost a lot of seedlings to drought. These trees really need moisture in March and April. I'm convinced you can have a drought in September or October and it won't matter. The second place we owned we got into Scotch pine, which we can no longer grow because they have a canker disease, it turns the lower branches brown and they die. It's not treatable by anything so we're not even trying to grow them anymore," said Snyder.
Working outside over the years Snyder has had a chance for unique interactions with local wildlife.
"At night about every fifth tree will have birds nesting in them. All kinds of different birds. The trees are a wind break and the birds are protected from predators," said Snyder. "We used to have problems with deer, they love to eat these things," said Snyder. "We get several of those every year," indicating a fresh buck rub.
Snyder shared a story of the hazards of Christmas tree farming.
"I was reaching over and tying a ribbon on to one of the trees marking it and I heard this thrashing in the tree and here comes a big ol' black snake. It came right down my arm and around the back of my neck and around me and down," said Snyder. "I went into the house after that!"
Farming Christmas trees is a life of hard work that requires flexibility and dedication.
"We did a lot of harvesting trees and loading trees at night. There were some nights we'd be out here until one o' clock in the morning, using car lights, spot lights. It's crazy the things you'll do when you have to," said Snyder.
The trees themselves require annual maintenance.
"You have to shear them. You have to do that yearly, otherwise you'll have gaps in the trees.You start when the new needles are half the size of the old needles. That's when we start shearing. You have about six to eight weeks to get it all off. It used to take all the time we had in the summer to do that.
When I started, we didn't know anything about it. We started with hedge shears and it took forever.
Then we started using a light machete with a blade about 12 or 16 inches long. By the time you're finished in August, you're like Schwarzenegger. There's also a mechanical shear, kind of like a weed eater, it has a blade on it and it's designed for Christmas trees. That's four times faster than the knife, that's how we do it now," said Snyder.
Snyder has formed a close connection with the farm over the years.
"It's just a joy to do this. It's been a family thing. My dad and father-in-law helped us, they're both deceased. I still look out and see the trees that I know Dad and my father-in-law worked on. It brings back good memories. We're pretty blessed to have this," said Snyder.