ATWATER, Ohio – Things are quiet at the Dittmer Tree Depot this time of year.
There are no excited children stomping the snow off their boots on the porch before going inside to get warm near the fire.
There is no Christmas music, no box of stray mittens in the middle of the room, no smell of hot chocolate in the air, and only a stray Christmas wreath here and there. The popcorn machine is cold, quiet, and empty.
But standing in the far corner, almost like the ghost of Christmas-past, is the tree that was last year’s decorated Christmas tree in the depot.
Mike Dittmer takes visitors to his Portage County farm to see that tree – for what he says is the best lesson in the superiority of taking home a real tree from a real Christmas tree farm. That deserted pine stood in that spot since Christmas. It was cut and put up in the depot in November, six months ago.
It is still fresh and green, its needles are still soft as silk and not at all brittle.
Started 12 years ago.
Dittmer takes enormous pride in that tree because it illustrates what he has achieved in the art and science of tree growing since he and his wife, Jann, sat down and ordered their first 5,000 spring seedlings 12 years ago.
Although Mike is employed by Atwater Township and Jann has worked for more than 20 years as a computer specialist at Kent State University, Christmas tree farming is far more than a avocation they throw themselves into when the Christmas season arrives.
With 30,000 trees in the ground on 15 acres, and plans to plant 50,000 more on an additional 25 or 30 acres, there is always something to be done to make sure that there will be a Christmas season.
About the only time there isn’t something that has to be done on a Christmas tree farm, Dittmer said, is in the few weeks right after Christmas.
Then, all he really has to think about is clearing out from the Christmas season, and doing a little basic farm maintenance.
Work is under way.
Dittmer orders his seedlings in January, and by the time they arrive in March or April, the work of getting trees ready to greet the customers is under way.
Dittmer has gotten away from spring planting, however. The seedlings arrive bare rooted, and most growers get them in the ground immediately.
But Dittmer has found his trees grow better if they are planted in the fall, when they have plenty of time for the root system to develop before the top begins to grow in the spring.
You can order trees that are plugged – preplanted in starter containers so the roots were not bare, and the trees did not have to be planted immediately. But plugged trees are too expensive for most commercial growers, Dittmer said.
He figured out how to plug them himself. Now, when he gets his seedlings in the spring he plants them in the containers and puts them in a small polyhouse greenhouse with a removable top.
Wait until fall.
Now he can wait until it is drier in the fall, and then plant just before the fall rains start.
Since he began fall planting, he has been able to cut the number of seedlings he orders in half. Rather than losing about half of each group of seedlings, almost every one of the 2,000 he has planted in the last two years has thrived.
The only planting he has lost altogether, was the first 5,000 trees that he hired someone to plant for him. Rather than spearing the roots directly into the ground, they drug the seedlings along the ground as they planted them.
The trees ended up with J-shaped roots, and had to be cut out in about four years.
As soon as the weather breaks in the spring, Dittmer starts the job of cutting the stumps out from last Christmas. And then he starts scouting his fields, inspecting the trees and looking for insects and weeds to decide when he needs to spray.
He has an experimental patch of trees that he doesn’t shape. With those trees, he has tried different ways of spraying at different times to find a way to get the best control with the least spray.
He also starts mowing early to keep as much vegetation as possible away from the bottoms of his trees.
“The more you let it grow up,” he said, “the more the tree will push up from its bottom limbs.”
Most people are not looking for a Christmas tree with a big bare foot.
June and July are shearing season, and Dittmer hand shears every tree himself.
“It’s too hard to train somebody, and you can ruin a tree if it’s sheared wrong, even when it’s only 3 feet high,” he said.
Shearing trees means two or three weeks of hard work for 12 hours to 18 hours a day.
He is particularly interested in holding the height back, and tries to limit his trees to no more than 6 to 8 inches growth a year. That way when they are ready to cut, they have fuller growth.
In early September he begins tinting the trees.
Tinting is not exactly spraying a tree green. It is more the application of a very light tint that shades the needles and filters the long light rays that tell the trees that fall is coming.
If they don’t know the sun is going down early, Dittmer said, they will hang on to all their chlorophyll, and the tree will stay green.
“And everybody wants a green tree at Christmas,” he said.
Ready for Christmas.
Then it is time to start sprucing up the farm, getting the wagons ready, doing some work on the trail back into the tree stands, and getting everything ready for the beginning of the Christmas season.
Mike Dittmer came to Christmas tree farming through the Farm Journal.
He has bought a 120-acre farm when he was 19 because he wanted to farm like his grandfather had done. But after 10 years of being a part-time grain farmer, he decided that he either had to “get in or get out.” He couldn’t keep farming 60 acres. He would either have to expand to more like 260, or do something else with the land.
About that time, he said, Farm Journal came out with a special issue with articles on all types of alternative farming. He explored several options, but having friends who run a nursery, he decided tree farming would be his best bet.
Makes it himself.
Because Dittmer is handy with tools and can do just about everything himself, he has been able to turn his farm into a Christmas tree farm without a large capital investment. The farm is called the Tree Depot because it is located right on the railroad tracks.
He built the depot where they sell the trees and built the wagons with benches that take customers out into the fields.
As soon as the first trees were planted, Mike and Jann both started taking classes on how to grow Christmas trees.
Then, finally, with seven years of work behind them, four years ago they were able to open for business. Their business plan was to charge $25 for any tree, no matter how big or how small.
And they have been relying on volunteer labor for workers to assist customers in the fields and in the depot.
The first year they invited the freshman class from Waterloo High School to work for 10 percent of tree sales on the days they worked, plus they could have anything left in the donations jar for the free refreshments they provide in the depot.
Those kids worked for three years, up through their junior year. Last year the Tree Depot started the freshman class of ’03 on the project, and this fall the high school band will also be working to raise funds.
The first year their business was easily accommodated on the first wagon Dittmer built. And that first wagon also had a platform right on the wagon to pile on the trees. The second year, the wagon was more crowded. The third year they found it hard to manage with only one wagon, and had to put another wagon on the back to haul trees.
Last year there were two wagons, and even those are crowded. They sold 500 trees last Christmas.
Stock getting bigger.
So far, Dittmer has not had to take out any trees. Their first field has just been getting progressively taller. He thinks it can be part of the operation for about three more years, after which he will have to take the remaining trees out and sell them wholesale.
Then he will be ready to replant that field again, and begin the rotation of trees that will keep the Christmas tree operation moving.
Ohio Christmas Tree Association Inc.