By Richard Szczepanowski Catholic News Service
UNION BRIDGE, Md. (CNS) — Retail experts call the growing popularity of cut-your-own Christmas trees “consumer engagement,” but Michael Ryan, owner and operator of Clemsonville Christmas tree farm in Union Bridge, calls it “part of a fun-filled memorable experience.”
An increase in the popularity of artificial trees over live trees several decades ago has leveled off in recent years, and Ryan said interest in live trees “is creeping back.”
“People want to buy American, they want a fun experience and they want a good product” is how 82-year-old Ryan, a member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Eldersburg, explained the renewed interest in the cut-your-own Christmas tree business.
He added that “the economy tends to be shifting from consumerism to experiential. Therefore malls and other businesses are adding experiences, and not just shopping.”
Ryan, a native of New York, spent several childhood Christmas seasons selling trees on a corner lot. He relocated to Washington to attend The Catholic University of America.
After graduation, he worked as school furniture sales representative. In 1965, he purchased a manor house built in 1706 by John Clemson that was modeled after George Washington’s Mount Vernon home and situated on 250 acres of land.
Several years after planting his first trees, the Christmas tree business was launched. “This started out as a small little venture and each year we kept adding and adding to it until it is what we have now,” he told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Ryan explained that the business “started as a family thing because I have always been a family-type man.”
The farm — whom Ryan operates with his wife, Mary — is now seeing the second generation of Ryans providing a fun family experience. Ryan’s three sons — Paul, Tom and Mike — work weekends at the farm. Mike, a Bethesda-based lawyer, graduated from Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law and is a part-time instructor at the university, teaching a course on securities market regulations.
“This is a great opportunity for families to come out, spend time together and enjoy themselves,” Mike said. “The trees are easy to cut down and easy to get on the car.”
Mike said he enjoys his time working at the Christmas tree farm because “I like dealing with the customers.”
The elder Ryan estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of his business comes from repeat customers. Mike noted that the first two full weekends of December are the farm’s busiest sales days.
Among the repeat customers are Jim Lucey and his wife, Noreen, parishioners at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg. This year marked the 39th time the Luceys, members of their families and friends have made the annual trek to the Clemsonville tree farm.
“It’s just a fun thing. He (Ryan) is a very nice guy. We’ve seen his kids grow up and he has watched my kids grow up,” Lucey said.
A former Secret Service agent who is now head of security at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Lucey said that “we look forward to this adventure every year. It has become a tradition.”
Lucey and his friends and family host a yearly CYOT (Cut Your Own Tree) party where they gather together, head out to the farm and return to Gaithersburg for a party.
“We pass maybe 10 chop-your-own-tree places on the way up there (to the Clemsonville farm),” he said. “It has become an adventure that we would not change.”
He added that his son in Connecticut and his daughter in New York come back to Maryland to the farm to cut their own tree.
“It is a family experience and everybody has a fun time,” Lucey said. “The simplicity of it is closer to the true meaning of Christmas and it is kind of nice to see the whole cycle — cutting the tree and then having it recycled.”
The farm is sustainable — planting three seedlings for every tree that is cut. This year, Ryan expects to plant 7,000 seedlings. Most are ready for harvest about seven years after they are planted.
All trees at the Clemsonville Christmas tree farm — from the smallest table-top tree to 14-foot towering pines — cost $20.
Visitors are provided with saws and other equipment to chop down their tree. They have free range of the growing fields as they search for the perfect tree. Coming back to the homestead, visitors get help securing their trees to the car and they also are treated to cider and cookies.
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Szczepanowski is a staff writer at the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.