WOOSTER, Ohio — The crop that Roger Dush grows takes a lot of trimming, weeding and fertilizing, over the course of about 10 years. But in the end — and more than 60 years since his family got into this business — Christmas trees are still a crop that brings Roger and his wife, Rita, much joy.
“I think it’s like most farmers — we just like to stand out there in the fields and look at these trees growing,” he said. “It’s really neat to plant a small little seedling and then see it grow and be a beautiful tree that’s going to be in someone’s living room.”
The Dush family has been growing Christmas trees between Wooster and Shreve since 1952, when Roger’s father, Bob, started growing them to generate extra income for his children to go to college.
Bob was also a local soil and water conservationist, but at the time, growing Christmas trees in Ohio was fairly new, and there was little research to guide him.
“No one really knew what kind of a tree to plant, and they (early growers) would get some exotic types of trees and they would turn yellow at Christmas time,” Roger said. “There was a lot of experimenting back then.”
According to Roger, Bob used the family automobile to clear a small farm along Wells Road, near Shreve, and plant the family’s first crop.
More than 60 years later, Roger and his family are still learning new things — but not in the same way they once did. The research has improved, thanks to Ohio State University, Roger said, and there are more growers, who share their experiences.
Bob Dush helped start the Ohio Christmas Tree Association, and helped lead it for more than 50 years, before his death in 2011. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, who still lives on the farm in a house located on an island, surrounded by lakes that Bob Dush built, and of course, a lot of Christmas trees.
Today, the farm operates under the name Pine Tree Barn, and features nearly 90 acres of Christmas trees, as well as a renovated 1860s barn that includes 25,000 square feet of retail space and a restaurant, known as the Granary.
The barn and tree farm are easy to spot along state Route 226, and people come here all year, from across Ohio and from other states. The barn was restored to include some original stone, hardwood flooring and painted siding, and modernized with extra space and amenities that make it ideal for a store and restaurant.
In addition to Christmas ornaments and decorations, the store also features home furnishings of about every kind, a team of interior designers, and a special line of early American and 1800s-era furnishings.
The retail barn and store opened in 1980. Today, it is run by Roger and Rita’s daughter, Julie Kilbourne, and Julie’s husband, Matt.
The barn offers three floors of retail space, and each room is uniquely decorated, connected with hallways and staircases that make the shopping experience seem endless.
In the home furnishing wing of the building, the rooms are made to look as they might in someone’s home.
Roger and Rita focus on the tree farm, which is a year-round job itself. From the time they’re planted, the trees take about 10 years to mature, and each year the Dush family has to spray weeds, apply fertilizer and trim the trees into shape.
They grow Fraser fir, blue spruce, Norway spruce, Canaan fir and white pine. Each type of tree has its own growing needs, and some require more fertilizer and care than others. Although Christmas trees are the farm’s main focus, they also dig and sell trees for landscaping.
They employ one farm manager, and during the summer, when trees need trimmed, they employ custom trimming crews. But Roger and Rita are still involved with the daily workings at the farm. They live next to the retail barn, in a renovated 1870s home, which is also a registered, county landmark.
Like field crops, trees need the right kind of conditions to grow, but they need those conditions over a longer period of time. A wet year, or a drought, can have a major impact on how a crop turns out, as can disease and weed pressure. If conditions are too severe, the trees will die, usually the younger ones. The Dushes have gotten good at selecting varieties and techniques that do well on their farm — but they still take a big risk each year.
“You learn like a farmer does and you just go with the flow,” Roger said. “You can’t control the weather.”
Even with the challenges, and all the labor, the Dushes find enjoyment from working outdoors and in nature.
“It’s a true joy to be able to grow trees,” said Rita, who also gardens. “I love being able to dig in the soil and help God’s creation to be beautiful, to steward the land.”
Years of experience
Walking across the farm with Roger, it’s clear that he knows his trees. He knows their age, their condition, the species and where it originated, and he has a good idea of what each tree will look like when cut.
And, he knows which ones aren’t doing so well — usually because of bad weather, or disease pressure.
Even though Roger and his family are at the working end of Christmas trees, they still put one up themselves, and enjoy the opportunity to share Christmas with other families.
“That is part of growing Christmas trees, being able to enhance the family and the closeness aspect of Christmas, Christ’s birthday,” Rita said. “That’s important to us, and I hope it always will be.”