(Our Rural Roles series features different voices within the agriculture industry who make a difference.The rural ag scene is made up of many people who often go unrecognized.)
NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Two passions are evident in the Rodgers family: community rescue and Christmas trees.
Ernie Rodgers, of New Castle, Pennsylvania, has been growing Christmas trees his entire life and has been serving as a volunteer firefighter for 43 of those years, two commitments he holds dear to his heart.
The land has had trees on it since 1939, when it was purchased by his father, Herbert. Rodgers’ Pine Hill Farm is currently 48 acres with 27 of those acres in trees.
“When customers come and visit the farm to get their Christmas tree, they get first class service from the whole family and they are treated like family,” Ernie said.
Ernie has a sister, Nancy; brother, Donald; three adult sons, David, Michael and Phillip; two daughters-in-law; three grandsons; and a granddaughter who all do their part.
The farm, open the day after Thanksgiving, also has the latest technology essentials, with the tree shaker to shake out any unwanted needles and the baler to tie it up for transport.
The Rodgers work year-round to provide Christmas trees, wreaths, roping and other crafts to their customers in November and December.
“Most trees don’t grow the way customers want them to look, so we shear the trees every year, mow in-between and right now we are not spraying anything, just trying to keep an eye on them with routine checks,” Ernie said.
Like most farmers, natural challenges can cut profits. This year they planted 2,000 trees and lost about 40 percent, due to the dry summer.
“Growing trees is a gamble; it takes 12 to 15 years to get a 7-foot tree,” said Ernie.
The No. 1 selling tree the last couple years has been the Fraser fir. They also grow Scotch pine, but so many diseases attack this breed, that it is hard to grow, he said.
Blue spruce, now has a spore attacking it, adding to the difficulty in raising trees. The spore attacks 365 days a year, doesn’t mind the weather, is airborne and blows from tree to tree. It doesn’t affect the Norway or White spruce, just the blue, he said.
Care is key
Check out other stories in our Rural Roles series:
January: Amish farmer and author shares story of the simple life.
February: Mary doesn’t have a little lamb, but she is a friend of the sheep industry.
March: Connie Finton volunteers off the farm to build quality of life for her family.
April: Conservation and cattle: Pete Conkle knows them both.
May: Gerards helped give equine trail riders miles of opportunity.
July: Passion for the fair runs deep: Tanya Marty.
August: Tuscarawas County farmer answers the call of his industry
September: It’s all because of the Jersey cow
October: Risky business: Tire repair has its share of dangers
The Rodgers work to educate their customers on keeping trees fresh. Tree cells grow and regenerate just like humans. If they get cut, they will scab over in about 30 minutes. So the key is to cut 1/8 of an inch off the bottom to get rid of the scab, then never let your water get below the stump, or it will scab again.
The largest tree they ever sold was two years ago, when they sold a tree that was 24 feet and 6 inches.
“We have fourth-generation families that come out here to pick out their trees. Some will bring a picnic and hot chocolate,” Ernie said.
In addition to family engagements and weddings, they have had three other engagements that they know of at the farm.
“It is a family place that is special to us and to many in the community,” Ernie said.
“We know we are lucky to break even, but the farm is family-oriented and everyone pitches in. We see three or four generations coming out keeping up the tradition and it is keeping Christ alive in our community, and that is what it is all about,” Michael said.
Tree farming actually comes second in the family’s priorities. The Rodgers have a passion for helping others and the men of the family have taken on leadership roles as volunteer firefighters.
Ernie has been a part of the Scott Township Volunteer Fire Department since 1973, joining in March and being elected captain in December of the same year; he has served as line officer ever since.
He is the longest serving person in the department. Ernie was in Boy Scouts as a child and feels as though he is living the morals and lessons he learned in Boy Scouts serving in the fire department.
“I grew up in Boy Scouts,” said Ernie. “I received my Eagle Scout in 1977, it is all about helping people and I have always taken that to heart.”
And so have his three sons as they have all followed in his footsteps as active volunteer firemen. His oldest grandson, Chris, at 14, also became a junior firefighter.
His wife, Kim, of 14 years, joins the fun, helping with fundraisers and serving as the photographer.
“The hardest part of coming into this family was that being part of the department was their first marriage, they are committed to it. When that pager goes off, life stops,” said Phillip’s girlfriend, Brittany Taylor.
“Volunteer departments used to be mostly farmers; when the whistle blew they jumped off the tractor to help,” said Ernie. “In today’s world, that’s just not true; very few are farmers and have the flexibility with their jobs to drop everything.”
The Rodgers brothers have arrangements with their work, that if they are needed on a call, they can leave.
They actually lose money to be a volunteer, said Michael. If he gets called out and he clocks out of work, he doesn’t get paid while he’s out there helping people. But he agrees with his family: It is worth it.
“It is important to help others when they are in need; if we don’t, who will? When we get called out, that person is having the worst day of their life,” Michael said.
There are around 50 on the volunteer firefighter roster, but about half of those are active, said David. The VFD has a training once a month to keep the volunteers up to date on how to use the trucks and equipment and the latest techniques.
When they get started, they have to attend fire school, which is $200. They work closely with other departments and focus on rural rescue methods, whether that be grain bins, barn fires or overturned tractors.
“The department brings social stability; people know they can count on us,” said David, who is also an EMT and works at the local hospital.
A firefighter’s equipment isn’t cheap — each volunteer’s suit and equipment costs in the neighborhood of $8,000.
To offset the costs, the Scott Township Volunteer Fire Department hosts many fundraisers to purchase their trucks, and to build and maintain their equipment.
They own a horse show grounds, which is on the property of the station, and the Western Pennsylvania Quarter Horse Association, and others rent the space from them to hold weekend events. Other fundraisers include bingo every Wednesday night, elderly dance clubs, raffles and the list goes on.
They put a 5,000 square foot addition on the station, costing $300,000 two years ago and with all of their successful fundraisers hope to have it paid off in March 2017, just shy of three years later.
“Three townships around them don’t have a fire department, so we actually cover four townships,” said Ernie. “New Castle is the closest paid station and we work closely with them in many emergencies.”
“You have to have relationships with the farmers for them to trust you during an emergency,” Ernie said.
The Rodgers family paused in silence when asked about close calls, then Ernie looked up.
“We’ve all seen close calls and terrible things happen, but if we aren’t there for them, who will be?”
While talking about succession, the brothers agree both tree farming and volunteer firefighting will continue.
“It’s all we have ever known and we love it,” Michael said, as he helped his own son, Nicholas, 5, up on a fire engine.
Five minutes with Ernie Rodgers
Family: Wife, Kim; sister, Nancy; brother, Donald; three sons; David, Michael and Phillip; two daughters-in-law; and four grandchildren
First job/chore: He starting working on the farm at 8 years old, but his first paying job was delivering the newspaper.
Burger or steak? A good hamburger
Favorite vacation: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to work in the woods and cut timber. I always loved being in the woods.
The best piece of advice I ever received was: “Life is too short, make the best of it.”
Something on your bucket list: Nothing, I have done what I wanted in life. I used to want to go to Las Vegas and snorkeling, but I have now. I am thankful for all the opportunities I have had.