O Christmas Tree
Cedar Hill Christmas Tree Farm is a little bit like Santa’s workshop. For most of us, the notion of the Christmas tree floats into focus in early to mid December — alongside the sugarplums and those last-minute gifts left on the shopping list. But for farmer Paul Ralph and his wife, Ria, Christmas trees are top of mind no matter what the season.
For nearly 30 years, the growers have sold trees from their Pakenham property. Ralph explains that preparing trees for commercial sale is a labour of love — and a lesson in patience.
“Every spring, we plant about 5,000 trees,” he says, adding that 50 of the farm’s 114 acres are covered with evergreens. “By the time a customer purchases one of those trees, it will be 12 or 13 years old.”
It’s a system of slow rotation at Cedar Hill as trees — blue spruce, scotch pine and Ralph’s specialty, fir — mature. The farm purchases little transplants every spring from a nursery at which they’ve already been growing for five years. After transplant on the farm, it will be an additional six to seven years before a balsam fir is be ready for market, while a fraser fir takes seven to eight years. “They’re a little more demanding of the proper soil,” Ralph says.
When it comes time to make a selection, Ralph prefers the balsam fir. “It has an extremely nice fragrance,” he says. “It smells like you’re out in the forest.”
But he says customers are most often taken with the fraser fir.
“It’s a very beautiful tree to start with,” says Ralph. “It’s a very structured tree, the branches are kind of in layers.”
The fraser fir is also considered the “cleanest” of the bunch. It has a reputation for holding on to its needles much more effectively than other trees.
“Ria makes wreaths from the fraser fir,” Ralph says. “You can have them indoors for months. They will keep their needles till spring.”
Ria’s production of about 600 handmade wreaths begins in April, with Ria depending on help from Hannah Ayer, one of the farm’s few full-time employees. Ayer’s sister, Emmy, helps prepare food in the kitchen, stockpiling butter tarts, chilli and homemade soups for the Christmas season. The farm’s restaurant, fittingly called Café Claus, is a popular spot to warm up on a cold winter’s day.
“We’ve got a very nice facility for making food,” Ralph says. “Emmy is an amazing baker and cook; her buttertarts are an annual must for so many people.”
Like elves in the workshop, the fruits of their labours surprise and delight visitors every December. There’s a sense that Cedar Hill is more than just a tree farm; there’s a touch of Christmas magic in the air so people linger.
“People don’t just come here to pick up a tree and leave,” Ralph says of his customers. “We have a fantastic sliding hill, we’ve got horse-drawn sleigh rides, even a playground with a zipline.” With wagons rolling out to the fields all day, customers can also hop a ride to make their own tree selection and bring their prize home to stand by the mantel.
“People will spend several hours here,” Ralph says. “They’re in such good humour — they’re here for a good time.”
Customers have been turning to Cedar Hill for high-quality trees since 1988, but that hasn’t always been the focus on the farm.
“When my wife’s family came here from Ireland in the 1820s, it was subsistence farming,” Ralph says.
“When I came on the scene in the ’60s, it was a dairy operation and later on, my father-in-law was a beef farmer.”
In 1978, the farm began to grow berries — strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Ten years later, the family turned its attention to Christmas trees.
“It wasn’t the most lucrative,” Ralph says of the decision. “But it was something that Ria and I both enjoyed.”
Plus, the logistics were easier to manage. “When we were growing fruit, we’d often have 60 to 70 employees on the farm in a day; with trees, we have about three employees a day.
“If you have five different crops, you’re going in five directions; growing trees means you don’t have to work quite as hard.” Ralph firmly believes it’s the quality of their product that allows them to make their living with trees alone. In addition to selling trees through retail, Cedar Hill has a wholesale business. Those trees go to resellers such as Canadian Tire and Your Independent Grocer. “There’s a big market for it,” says Ralph of wholesale tree farming. He adds that IKEA has become a serious competitor — offering an in-store gift card to those who purchase a tree off its lot.
At Cedar Hill, wholesale accounts for almost half of the business. “If we’re going to sell 3,000 trees on the farm, we plant 5,000 and wholesale the additional trees,” Ralph says. While customers often assume the trees slated for wholesale are of lesser quality, Ralph is adamant that every one of his trees is top notch.
“We really do feel that the quality of our trees is second to none,” he says. “And even on Christmas Eve, we have a really good supply of excellent Christmas trees — we never run short.”
Passing the branch
Ralph, now 70, says he and Ria are ready to start slowing down and dedicating more time to their eight grandchildren. In fact, after a years-long search for the right people to take over their operation, they’ve found them.
“We’re in the process of turning the farm over to a young couple from western Ontario,” Ralph says.
Former dairy farmers in western Ontario, Pamela and Grant Martin have four young boys — Todd, Neil, Adam and Graham — Ralph is thrilled to be passing down the family legacy to the new owners. “The farm is being rejuvenated,” says Ralph, adding that he and Ria will work as employees of the new owners next year to assist with the transition. For a man who truly loves his work, there’s an emotional aspect to retirement.
“I very much enjoy working outside, working with the trees and the soil,” he says. “I’ll miss the property; our farm is built on two creeks and we built a 90-foot covered bridge.
“It’s going to be tough for me to move on.”
But the overwhelming feeling, he says, is one of gratitude that their business will be in the right hands.
“They’re so into the soil and crops and all the things I love,” says Ralph. “We feel that we found that one in 15 million. We feel truly grateful.”
Cedar Hill Christmas Tree Farm
951 Concession 8 South, Pakenham, Ont.