Few businesses would survive decades if their payment method relied solely on the honor system, and patrons simply left cash in a Styrofoam cooler with a note.
But for Gary Saunders, it’s not about money, it’s about Christmas.
Saunders, and his wife Pam, run the Saunders U-Cut Tree Farm near Pelland Junction, and have been doing so for many years.
How it all began
“We built our house in 1976, we moved in in October, and the first two winters, we were actually snowed in and couldn’t get out for a couple of days,” Pam Saunders said.
“Because this was all farm fields,” Gary Saunders interjected, explaining that excess snow was due to blowing drifts.
Saunders hoped to cut down on the gusts of snow, looking to pine trees as a possible solution.
“We only had one tree on the whole property and it was over on the roadside, so Gary started planting trees as a windbreak...and it worked,” she said.
One year, he cut one of the windbreak trees down to use as their Christmas tree, and soon after friends and relatives started asking, “Gary, can I get a tree?” Pam said.
Word of mouth quickly spread, and the Saunders started to plant trees specifically to be used for Christmas trees.
Though they have around 6,500 trees on their property each year, it is a small scale operation.
The Saunders’ “cash register” is just a cookie tin with “Merry Christmas” printed on the front. Their method of collecting payment is just a cooler on their front porch with a note requesting patrons to put their money in an envelope and write their names on the front.
Their repeat customers know the drill.
“People say, ‘how many trees do you have?’ and I usually say thousands. They’re not all Christmas tree size, but (Gary) plants every year, and when they’re cut he’ll replenish them with new ones,” she said.
“We make enough to pay expenses, and that’s all I want,” Gary said.
“People tell me I should be charging more, but it’s Christmas, I like to give a little bit,” he explained.
Their payment is mostly based on the honor system, but people are generally honest, he added.
A visit to the tree farm
Visitors to the Saunders' tree farm will probably first be greeted by the Saunders’ dog, "Dakota," as they pull their car up the winding driveway.
If they are not then greeted by Gary and Pam Saunders, patrons should prepare to use the Styrofoam-cooler-payment-system.
“It’s very casual,” Pam describes the process.
Then, “it’s free-reign, wherever you want to go,” according to Gary.
Patrons are welcome to choose any tree they wish, and then use hand saws and tools from the garage to cut it down. The garage also houses a number of hockey sticks and brooms – though not to be used for their originally intended purposes.
“We have hockey sticks and brooms, and when we have a lot of snow, we give them to people to knock the snow off the trees,” she said.
This is so visitors can better see what the tree will look like in their homes, without it being weighed down with snow.
“That’s when it’s really good that the kids come out, because they run through the trees and they really clean them up for us,” she said, chuckling.
Once a tree is cut down, visitors are welcome to use the provided twine to affix the tree to their vehicle – and voila – the freshly cut tree is ready to head to its holiday home.
Work in the offseason
Gary is a lot like Santa Claus: He, too, spends all year preparing for Christmas.
During the off-season, new trees must be planted to replace the ones that were sold, and older trees must be sheared and trimmed. The grass around the trees needs to be mowed, too, which can be a time-consuming task, and requires the mower to navigate around the trunks of 6,500 trees.
This year, he ordered 500 seedlings to plant for the upcoming season. “I’m going to try planting some this fall,” he said.
Usually, planting takes place in the spring, but he’s planted as late as November before, “and they grew,” he said.
When planting seedlings, he looks to make sure the roots are similar in size to the seedling, to ensure that it will grow well.
Once the trees reach a couple of feet in height, he and his helpers begin to shear them. After the trees’ new growth begins to harden off in the spring, they are sheared to help guide them to grow into an iconic Christmas tree conical shape.
The art of trimming sets Christmas trees apart from any other conifers.
Gary is like a sculptor – when a tree is growing crookedly, he trims off the parts he doesn’t like and hopes that in five years or so the top portion will be well-shaped.
The trimming schedule can be erratic, thanks to the irregular weather in Borderland.
Winter has been so long the last few years, and spring has been kind of short, Pam said, “so sometimes he’s trimming in April or May, and sometimes it’s as late as July.”
“It’d be Fourth of July, he lots of times used to trim and I’d be waiting for him to come in so we could go to the parade,” she said.
The whole process is heavily dependent on the weather. Freezing rain and heavy snow can be damaging to the trees.
“Not every tree will make a Christmas tree, either, some of them are just “Charlie Brown” trees,” Gary said.
All types of trees
“Most of them are white spruce, and I have scotch pines, white pine, Norway pine...and what else?” Gary asked his wife.
“Balsam,” Pam answered.
“Oh, balsam! They’re the biggest seller and the one I like the best, because of the fragrance and the needle retention,” he said.
Saunders always picks the tree for their family – it’s always a balsam. Pam Saunders has chosen the family tree only once. She picked a lopsided tree and apparently has not been given the honor again.
Christmas trees are a long-term investment relative to many other crops with shorter growing seasons.
“It takes white spruce between eight and 10 years (to grow to an ideal height),” Garu said, “but the pines are faster growing, so I guess (it takes) about seven or eight years for a Norway, Scotch.”
Activity begins to ramp up at the tree farm in late November.
“Lots of times, families have been coming for years and years and years,” Pam said.
For the Saunders, regular customers and word of mouth are all the advertising needed.
“We have one person that always calls us Black Friday morning to say, ‘Can I get a tree this year?’
‘Sure, I’ve been waiting for your call,'” Saunders always replies.
The couple usually considers Thanksgiving their official opening, however, there is no time too early to pick a tree. Pam's sister picked out her Christmas tree back in August, she said.
Trees chosen early are tagged with a ribbon indicating that they’ve been sold, and then can be cut down closer to Christmas.
Some visitors come to the farm without a clue what they are looking for, while some arrive looking for a very specific type of tree.
Most customers search for trees about six to eight feet tall.
“You have to remind (the patrons) that (the trees) look small out there, but once you bring them in the house, they always look way bigger then you think they are,” Pam said.
Gary often volunteers himself as a sort of human measuring tape for customers, because he is about six feet tall.
“We’ve only had one person who went out there and spent a lot of time looking and couldn’t find a tree,” he said, indicating that they have a high rate of customer satisfaction.
“I think people don’t realize how much is involved in growing Christmas trees. They think you plant it, and then you wait, seven, eight, nine, years, and then you cut it.”
For the Saunders, maintaining the tree farm takes a lot more than just careful planning, it takes heart and soul – and it’s all for Christmas.