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The quest for the next best tree

first_imgShare Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest With everything from cell phones to seed corn, it is natural for many businesses to continually seek out the next best thing. On Matt Mongin’s Greene County farm, this applies to Christmas trees too.His quest started nearly 30 years ago. Mongin worked as an accountant at a firm in Cincinnati when he and his wife, Jane, decided to move their family to a farm. They purchased the 20-acre property and started planting Christmas trees in 1986.“I was 40 and I was tired of being in the office all the time on a computer. I wanted to be outside and using my hands more, so we took this on. At the time it was a corn field and before that it had been a cattle pasture for 100 years,” Mongin said. “We knew we had a limited amount of money and we could only afford 20 acres. That, realistically, was all we could handle anyway.”The Mongins quickly discovered a learning curve even steeper than the hilly terrain of their new property. It did not take Mongin long to learn, though, about the importance of finding the right trees for a profitable operation.“We started with Scotch pine. We learned the hard way that Scotch pine trees are a mecca for disease problems and they are lower-priced trees. They are just not worth it. We had terrible losses from disease,” Mongin said. “Then we got into a fairly large stand of Douglas fir. They turned out beautifully, they grow fast and people liked them, but they have too many spraying requirements because of Swiss needle cast susceptibility. As we grow Christmas trees and think we have something that will make us money, we learn they become susceptible to disease and other problems. You have to watch your back because when you get a problem it will go through the stand pretty quickly. You always have to keep looking for the next best tree.”It was around that time that the Canaan fir came onto the scene and changed Christmas tree production in Ohio. It was originally developed by researcher Jim Brown at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster and combined the traits of a Fraser and Balsam fir that were appealing toMatt Mongin stands by “Lady Jane” a towering Concolor fir with a very unusual and striking blue color that is being used for seed production.customers and better suited for Ohio’s heavier soils. Canaan fir is the top tree now for Mongin’s Spring Valley Tree Farm (and most Christmas tree farms in Ohio). The farm also offers white pine, Concolor fir, Norway spruce and white spruce. Mongin has found that these work well on the farm, but he is constantly looking to improve moving forward to stay ahead of diseases, insect problems and ever-changing customer demand.“We are working to find what grows well here. We are looking hard at Nordmann fir, Turkish fir and hybrids with Canaans. I am excited about Canaan corkbark, for example,” he said. “We have transplant beds full of different types of trees to find the next Canaan fir.”Mongin is visually distinguishing different subspecies of Canaan fir and other types of trees on the farm. He is reserving some trees to collect seed from to use in the development of new tree types with more specific, desirable traits. The process is slow and tedious, but the results could one day be extremely valuable to the farm. Maybe the most notable example is “Lady Jane,” a towering Concolor fir with a very unusual and striking blue color. Seed from Lady Jane could lead to the next big thing in Ohio Christmas tree production. Mongin thinks he is maybe 10 years off from having commercially viable transplant trees to sell for other farms to plant.“Trees are genetically diverse. Genetics for seeds bought by big nurseries are often collected from squirrel caches in national parks, so you never know quite what you are getting,” he said. “We planted 3,000 seedlings that we evaluated and we can, though careful selection, find the kind of trees we like and develop those and sell them for doing what we are doing. It is all about getting trees that genetically will thrive in the environments we intend to plant them. There are not enough people doing this.”New tree variety development is one component of a broader effort nationally to expand R&D in theThis tree nursery is home to different subspecies of trees selected to desirable characteristics on the farm.Christmas tree business thanks to a newly implemented Christmas tree checkoff. The 2016 Christmas season is the second year Christmas tree growers will market trees under the Christmas Tree Promotion, Research and Information Order (otherwise known as the Christmas tree checkoff). After an arduous process, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the measure and authorized a board to manage a program of promotion, research, evaluation and information designed to strengthen the Christmas tree industry’s position in the marketplace.“We had voluntary contributions from the national association for 30 years and two years ago we had a vote and the USDA said OK. Now 15 cents per tree goes to the checkoff. If you sell less than 500 trees you’re exempt,” Mongin said. “The beauty of most checkoff programs is that there is a middle guy who keeps track of what you sell. There is no middle person for the most part in the Christmas tree industry so we are on the honor system. We have to say, ‘Here is how many I sold and here is my check.’ This will have to grow with time.”The initial emphasis with the checkoff funds will be promotion, but there will be a greater research emphasis moving forward in terms of tree varieties and production.“Marketing is the emphasis now. First and foremost they need to get a savvy marketing company to develop a pitch for a real tree. How do we improve sales? Second, we need research into tree genetics to help farmers be more successful in production,” Mongin said. “The checkoff can help us, but I take the long view. I don’t expect results next year or the year after. If we see measureable results in 10 years I will think it is worthwhile.”Mongin feels like another important role of the checkoff will be researching and promoting improved production practices.“For us, the production was the hardest part of getting started. We started from scratch with knowledge. We read a lot of books and there is a lot that is published about this industry that is half right or just plain wrong,” Mongin said. “From 1986 through 1990 all the literature said you hand plant trees with a spud bar, but when you do that, you smash the roots and you effectively kill the tree in two years. It is a terribly wrong thing and that is what the literature said. If you are in soft garden type soils you can get away with that but in heavier soils it is just wrong. There are many other examples of things like that. It takes a while to learn how to do this. For us, marketing has always been secondary. The challenge was production.”Through the years of trial and error and talking with other tree growers, Mongin has been able to really hone tree production practices.“The Christmas tree industry has been open and welcoming about sharing information freely. We grew trees and customers came,” he said. “Lots of mistakes are made early on and fortunately we didn’t make too many.”Tree planting is another area where Mongin has really emphasized improvements.“With planting, soil prep is essential. You can’t just plant trees in an open, grass-covered field an expect them to survive. I am unhappy if 95% of my plants don’t thrive,” he said. “When we first started, 50% survival would have been good. We had the expense and time of putting trees in and then they didn’t survive. We work hard at soil prep and planting. I want the tree to find at least a foot of soft soil around the roots and we mulch around them with chipped up Christmas trees.”The planting process is labor intensive. Strips are sprayed in the fall to kill weeds the following spring and prepare for planting.“In an inter-planting situation where we are replacing missing trees in between growing trees, we plant with a six-inch auger and dig a hole eight or nine inches down. Then we follow that with a larger hand auger and pulverize the soil 12 inches in diameter. We don’t want big clods of dirt. They create a lot of air space and the roots may die,” he said. “The people planting the trees make a cone of soil in the bottom of the hole and place the tree roots around it, then add 18-6-4 fertilizer tablets in the hole, and gently pack the soil in around the tree. Then a few days later we follow that with mulch in a 12-by12-inch circle around the tree a couple of inches deep. You want to keep the sun off the soil around the tree.”In addition to the labor-intensive planting, the trees are all trimmed in the summer months to get conical, but not manicured-looking trees. Weed control is a summer-long endeavor and, at 70 years old, Mongin is also always looking for the next best thing in terms of mechanization and reduction of labor.And while there is always a need for the next best thing, some of the old best things work pretty well, too. In terms of marketing, word-of-mouth has always been the best tool for reaching customers.“Word-of-mouth has proven to be the most effective form of advertising and after 30 years we have built up a good customer base. We use direct mailing too. When someone buys a tree we get a name and address and send a brochure out to everyone to remind them to come and start their Christmas season out here,” Mongin said. “We have a manger scene and cider, hot chocolate and cookies — the kids remember that. That may be one of our best advertising strategies. That still seems to work pretty well.”For more about the farm, visit springvalleytreefarmllc.com.last_img

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