A winter crop helps local farms thrive.
by Trilby Becker
Published in November, 2019
Traveling down N. Parker Rd. toward Chelsea, you are treated to a classic American view: iconic red barns, fields recently tilled for the winter, and stands of mature trees, their leaves tinged red and gold in the deep, honeyed light of mid-October. At Christmas time, visitors are welcomed onto a few of the area's beautiful historic farms to shop for a crop that can only be harvested for three weeks in December: the Christmas tree.
Brian and Susan Urquhart, owners of Urquhart Christmas Tree Farm, are a fit, outdoorsy couple approaching their eighties. Their elegant home is situated between two ponds at the end of a long dirt driveway, surrounded by evergreens. "We just love it here," Sue says with a smile. A flock of sheep bleats as if on cue when cars roll up. "A present from our twelve-year-old son in 1984," Brian laughed. "We've had them ever since!"
The Urquharts bought their 240-acre farm on S. Steinbach Rd. in 1973. Brian commuted to his job as a lawyer in Ann Arbor. Sue quit her teaching job to raise their two boys, but as they grew up, she got restless. "I wanted a side project," she says, "so I started planting Christmas trees."
And more Christmas trees. They would go on to purchase another 100 acres and today plant about 5,000 trees a year. With the help of twenty seasonal workers, including their sons, they sell roughly 3,000 trees during the weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Urquharts' gently rolling farm is a beautiful mix of woods, wetlands, and rows of evergreens wound through by Mill Creek. The routine is similar to most Christmas tree farms: customers are given hand saws and encouraged to walk across the fields and select their own tree or take a wagon ride to the farther fields. Customers cut their tree and pull it on a handcart back to the Urquharts' hip-roof barn, built in the early 1840s, where it is shaken to
remove excess needles, baled, and placed onto the roof of the customer's car.
Westman's Tree Farm, in Dexter, got started in a similar way to the Urquharts'. Bill Westman's father, who worked for the University of Michigan, bought the farm in 1947 as a refuge from city life. He started growing Christmas trees as a side project in 1965, when Bill was seven years old. After working on airplanes for twenty-five years, Bill took over the Christmas tree business and has never looked back. "There are no downsides," he says. "Except maybe the hornets."
Fifty acres of the farm is planted with Christmas trees, and the rest of the property is in hardwoods. Bill is working with the township and the county to sell the development rights, ensuring that the property remains protected forever. He plants 1,000 trees a year and sells every tree that survives to adulthood, an average of 800 a year. Rainfall is not as reliable as it once was, and the young trees have to be irrigated in summer via underground pipes. Bill will phase out his tree nursery operation and double his Christmas tree production in the next year and believes there is plenty of opportunity for new tree farms to thrive in the area.
"If you have the property, then it's a great way to go, but it takes ten years to be in the business in a big way. And the land has to be suitable-heavy clay won't work."
Bill sees U-cut Christmas trees as the way the industry is going. "People are looking for the cut-your-own experience. For many, it has become a holiday tradition, with some families coming back for over forty years." It's certainly a family affair for the Westmans. Bill's wife and daughters are part of the barn crew, selling refreshments, running the register, and shaking and baling up trees.
Cutting your own Christmas tree is a playful, family-friendly adventure that gets you into the country and the holiday spirit. It's also a perfect way to support a local farm in the middle of winter.
Urquhart's Christmas Tree Farm
10050 Jerusalem Rd. Chelsea,48118.
Fri., Sat. Sun. 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. starting Nov. 29. Self-service days Dec. 22-24, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
$59 for any tree 6.5 feet or less. Trees over 7 feet $9/foot.
Cash, check, Discover, Visa, and Mastercard.
Precut trees, wreaths, and stands available.
Westman's Tree Farm
8000 Chamberlin Rd., Dexter 48130
Opens Nov. 29, 9 a.m.- dark. Sat. & Sun. 9 a.m. - dark. Mon.-Fri. 3:30 p.m. - dark. Other hours by appointment.
Spruces six feet and under, $60. Six to eight feet, $70. Concolors eight feet and under, $80. Larger trees are an additional $10/foot.
Cash or check only.
Precut trees, wreaths, and stands available.
Two other options in the Ann Arbor area:
Braun's Tree Farm
Fred's Tree Farm
[Originally published in November, 2019.]
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