Gordie Bell introduced me to his farm dog Holly as we climbed onto his utility vehicle and drove between narrow rows of Christmas trees on a piece of hillside acreage in Accord. Bell’s Christmas Tree Farm is known far and wide for the fir and spruce trees that the family grows in this stunning spot in the Rondout Valley. You’ve got your pick of Douglas fir, Canaan fir, concolor fir, Serbian spruce, Colorado blue spruce, balsam fir, grand fir, Korean fir, Meyer spruce, Fraser fir and Fralsam fir.
Holly the Dog runs alongside as we cruise through sections planted in each of these varieties, and Gordie talks about the Bell family having worked this farm since the 1900s. Before venturing into trees, he milked cows. “We sold the dairy in ’90; all my milk cows went to another farm upstate,” he says. “We still bale hay. I’m the third generation on this farm. My grandfather used to work in the D & H Canal.” He stops the vehicle at the top of a hill from which the entire valley can be viewed. A huge slab of bluestone is pushed up near the fenceline for people to sit on and take in the Shawangunks.
Gordie works the farm now with son Brian, the fourth generation to live off the land here. After my tour, we cozy up in the farmhouse kitchen with Gordie’s wife Paula. They talk randomly about when the season begins – the day after Thanksgiving – and how customers really start pouring in during the first two weekends in December. A shack at the gate gets transformed into a cozy gift shop offering hand-decorated fresh wreaths, white pine roping and balsam kissing balls, along with an assortment of decorations and delicious goodies such as local maple syrup, honey and hot chocolate. Folks can order decorative greens and wreaths a week in advance if they want something special: stars, snowflakes, crosses, hearts and lots more.
But the cut-your-own trees are the reason for coming out into the fresh air and meandering around the farm. With thousands to choose from, some up to 13 feet tall, picking just the right one could take all day – which makes for a great family outing, no matter what the weather. All trees are priced at $50, and customers are given a saw and a sled to cut their own and bring it back to the shed. There, a hole is bored into the trunk for a “pin stand” that holds water. “They’re also called ‘divorce-free’ stands,” says Paula, hinting at the struggle husbands and wives often endure propping up large trees. The drilled tree fits right over the pin and can be turned 360 degrees to show the best side. Gordie says that it works for trees up to ten feet tall; any taller, the weight of a decorated tree becomes problematic.
They talk about different aspects of the profession: establishing transplant beds, grooming the shapes and sizes of the trees and maintaining the irrigation systems. “After the season, we grind every stump where the trees have been cut,” says Gordie. “A lot of customers leave brush, so we clean up and get ready for the next season. By the time we grind all the stumps, we’re at the end of February or into March, and then we can start planting trees – bare-root transplants.”
I wondered how they learned all they needed to know about growing trees. He says, “Reading and going to conventions. We belong to the New York State Christmas Tree Association, which we hosted here in 2013. They have a summer convention and a winter convention. And the Ulster County Cornell Cooperative Extension has a twilight meeting, from 6 to 8:30 in the summer at a farm. They’ll have somebody in to show how to shear-proof trees or different aspects of the business. And you read a lot.”
“He’s a natural because he grew up in agriculture, and he went to SUNY-Delhi for agriculture, so he has a background,” says Paula. “He did have some knowledge and the desire to do it. How much of the first planting died?” Gordie comments that 80 percent of that planting back in 1991 was lost. “But farmers persevere. You learn as you go.
The Bells bring in family and friends to help run the shop during the short-but-intense season, making wreaths and drilling trunk holes and carrying trees to people’s cars. Outside, a selection of potted live trees ranges in price from $10 to $100. Paula sets up a couple of trees as a donation spot for hats, scarves and mittens, new or gently used, to be given to Family of Ellenville for distribution. They also participate in Trees for Troops through the non-profit Christmas Spirit Foundation: a national program that collects trees to be sent to military families living on bases, even overseas.
When asked how long a fresh-cut tree will hold its needles, Gordie explains that if it’s taken home and put in hot water immediately, the pitch won’t seal the cut, which would prevent the tree from taking in water. “A lot of places you where buy them, they’re cut in October and November out of Canada, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Here you cut a fresh tree, and if you never let it go dry, you can leave it up until January or February. We have people who leave them up until Valentine’s Day, but you can’t do that with every tree. We’re still dealing with nature.”
I ask Brian why he chose to follow his father, grandfather and great-grandfather into farming. Brian waxes poetic about his love of being outdoors. “I grew up here working on the farm. And since it’s been in the family for that long, it’s nice to keep the land and work it any which way you can. The Christmas trees have really worked out well for us. It’s fun when people come out. Everybody’s in a good mood because they want to be here. I went to SUNY-Ulster to study in the Geology Department. Wasn’t sure about what I would end up doing. If I wanted to be in that field, I’d have to move out of the area, which I didn’t want to do.”
Brian compares fresh-cut trees to artificial ones. “So many people think an artificial tree is better for the environment, when just the opposite is true. Artificial trees are made in foreign countries in factories that spew out whatever, and it eventually gets thrown into the landfill and sits there for 100 years. Real trees provide oxygen and remove pollen and CO2 from the air. It’s a crop, basically – a long-term crop. Every year we replant right in the same spot.”
I ask how long it was after they planted those first trees before the farm realized a profit or even enabled them to pay the bills. Gordie says, “In the tree business, you’re burying money in the ground for eight to ten years before you see a dime. And then you have to sell for X amount of years to make that up and break even.” Thus the growth of hay and production of topsoil for sale. “And in the ’90s, we still raised heifers and sold a lot of firewood to pay the bills. I’d say it’s 18 to 20 years before you see a profit.”
Still, he says, it’s an ideal sort of life on the farm. “We’re totally private in the valley. A farm is full of pride. We’re proud of what we do. As soon as I open that gate, it’s the closest thing to heaven that I know of.”
The Bells sell trees, roping and wreaths through December 24. Regular hours are Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to dusk, Saturday and Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to dusk and from 8 a.m. to noon on December 24.
Bell’s Christmas Tree Farm, 647 Mettacahonts Road, Accord; (845) 626-7849, http://bellschristmastrees.com.