WOODLOTS


Christmas Every Day

Crystal Spring Tree Farm is harvesting happiness
By J.F. Pirro


At Crystal Spring Tree Farm, they think about Christmas every day. Case in point: Even into mid-January, owner-operator Chris Botek was still attending Christmas parties and hadn't yet hosted the holiday gathering for his employees. Of course, the crew spends the actual holiday season making customers' Christmases the best that they can be.

In 2006, Chris Botek of Crystal Spring Tree Farm appeared on "The Martha Stewart Show" as the "tree expert."

In 2006, Chris Botek of Crystal Spring Tree Farm appeared on "The Martha Stewart Show" as the "tree expert."
Photos courtesy of Chris Botek.

"If not for Christmas, I'd be in trouble," Botek says.

Located in Lehighton, Pa., in the scenic Mahoning Valley in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains, Crystal Spring has provided the Christmas tree for the state capitol building 18 times. The farm's trees have also been selected for display at New York City's Rockefeller Center, and twice its trees were chosen to be displayed in the Blue Room of the White House.

"It might sound sappy," Botek says, "but after all the work we put in, when it comes time for celebrating Christmas, all those trees are in all those homes Christmas morning - and those trees are the epicenter of Christmas."

Each year, 15,000 of Botek's trees are sold, from Washington, D.C., up to Connecticut. He works with a tree broker and high-quality garden centers. A typical tractor-trailer order that leaves with 650 trees is composed of 300 Douglas firs, 300 Fraser firs and a mix of blue spruce and concolor firs.

Christmas tree crop

There's always a crop in the works. Botek does his own transplants from a tightly planted 1-acre bed of seedlings by the main garage and loading barn. The 40,000 trees planted in the bed are either transplanted after three years or sold to other tree farms. The plot is the only part of the tree farm that's irrigated.

Botek also grows and sells evergreens to the landscape industry. In all, Crystal Spring grows 15 varieties of trees. Years ago, his father only sold wholesale cut trees. "Today you can barely make ends meet, and we're doing it all," Botek says.

Harvesting trees takes patience. Crystal Spring prefers seven years of growth, but is actually on a 10-year rotation. You almost need a crystal ball to look ahead for what will be popular when trees mature, but diversity serves the farm well.

"Some ask why these [8-foot] trees are bigger than these [3-foot] trees; some think we plant and grow these trees like corn, clearing a field and planting a crop for next season," Botek says.

Bare-root beginnings

Botek's parents, Margaret and Francis Botek, started Crystal Spring Tree Farm in 1964. Botek's grandfather was the first to dabble in trees. He had someone sell them in front of the family's meat market and grocery store in Lansford. He eventually bought 2 acres on Route 443 in Lehighton and planted Scotch pine. When trees were ready, the family station wagon was filled and driven into Lansford.

Expansion started when Botek's parents bought an old dairy farm with 25 acres, which is now the "home farm." Francis planted Douglas fir and more Scotch pine. While still running the family store, Francis and Margaret added 15 acres to the tree farm in 1978. After adding an additional 15 acres in 1984, they decided to run the tree farm full-time.

Chris Botek with the 2010 national champion
Colorado blue spruce before the National
Christmas Tree Association competition.

Chris Botek with the 2010 national champion Colorado blue spruce before the National Christmas Tree Association competition.

Having grown up with the farm, Botek knew what he wanted to do when he finished high school, but his parents insisted that he get a college degree. He earned a bachelor's degree in plant science from Penn State in 1995, returned to the farm and has been there ever since.

That same year, the family began leasing additional land to convert into woodlots, and within five years the farm was pushing 200 acres. That total has since grown to 250 acres.

"It's not giant," Botek says of the farm, "but it's big enough that I can compete with anyone, yet small enough that there's still not a tree that I don't touch, and small enough that I don't get complaints. I don't like complaints. I don't like bad phone calls, and I don't get them."

Botek started taking steps to acquire the business in 2004, and by 2006 he was certain it would be a reality. Although he's still in the process of buying his parents out, he's now in charge of the current growing program and maintenance, labor and current business.

Francis and Margaret Botek with the
2006 national champion Douglas fir
in Portland, Ore.

Francis and Margaret Botek with the 2006 national champion Douglas fir in Portland, Ore.
"If you had to start a business like this from scratch, you wouldn't do it. You couldn't do it," he says. "It takes half a fortune, and then it takes all those years before you get anything back."

Botek took his first significant plunge into land development two years ago, when he purchased 78 acres for a farmhouse homestead at the top of contiguous acreage his parents assembled.

He's planted on 60 acres of it. He believes this land will eventually allow him to let go of a 60-acre leased parcel three miles away. The problem is that Frasers grow well there. He could sublet it to another grower and phase it out over time if his new land is as productive as he hopes. He'll have that answer in about five years, and within 10 years his plan is that no tractor will have to leave the farm.

He knows he'll save time and labor by consolidating the operation, even if it's just the 20 minutes it takes to move crews and equipment down the highway.

Efficiency is a must

Crystal Spring has worked to increase efficiency. Once trees are cut, they go from a tractor to a baler to a hay wagon, and then to the loading dock for placement on tractor-trailers. Before the 10,000-square-foot loading dock/barn storage facility was built, Botek says the trees were handled five or six times. Those touches have been cut by two-thirds. With a five-man crew, he can load 700 trees in less than two hours, and "no one is beat-down tired," he says. "I couldn't do it without this building."

The building makes it possible for crews to work at night if necessary, and if it snows he can get a wagonload under cover. No equipment sits outside anymore.

The right equipment also helps. Crystal Spring has 15 hay wagons, a 135 hp Case tractor, a 115 hp International tractor and five or six smaller tractors for maintenance between rows, six balers, five small four-wheelers, two skid steers, mechanical hand attachments for loading and more. "It's not a matter of wanting all of this; you need all of this," says Botek.

The 2006 Christmas tree in the Blue
Room at the White House, an 18.5-
foot Douglas fir.

The 2006 Christmas tree in the Blue Room at the White House, an 18.5- foot Douglas fir.
Botek is very hands-on. The operation had two full-time employees, but he lost one late last year. There are upwards of 10 part-time workers during the holiday season, but two or three loyal part-time workers.

A light snowfall this past season made conditions perfect for harvesting and customer selection. A heavy snow can shut down operations at the wrong time due to safety issues. "To have one person get hurt is too many," Botek says. "I always tell them [that] if they even have to think about it, or question something, don't do it."

By March, depending on how wet the fields are, he's digging trees that will be balled and burlapped. Though it's labor-intensive, every tree is basal pruned when it's 4 or 5 feet tall. The cuttings are used to make wreaths. The trees are regularly sheared by hand. "It takes skilled labor. We want nice, full trees. It takes a trained eye and not everyone has it," Botek says.

As far as diversifying his woodlots, at one time his sales were split evenly between Christmas trees and landscaping stock. These days it's about 75 percent cut trees and 25 percent landscaping stock.

A national champion grower

Being designated a national champion grower is what lands one of your trees in the White House. It's a process that's been used to select the White House Christmas tree since 1966. Growers must win a state competition first. Winners are only eligible to compete every four years, theoretically giving others a shot. Pennsylvania's state competition is held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Crystal Spring isn't eligible again until 2014, when the tree farm will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Crystal Spring won in 2006 in Portland, Ore., and in 2010 in Winston-Salem, N.C., each time as part of the National Christmas Tree Association annual meeting. Both White House trees were Douglas firs, but Botek won the national competition in 2006 with a Douglas fir and in 2010 with a blue spruce.

"It's like lightning striking twice - it just doesn't happen," Botek comments. "It's tough enough just to win in Pennsylvania."

Crystal Spring is the only farm in Pennsylvania to ever win the national competition twice. Veteran growers Eric and Gloria Sundback in West Virginia have won four times.

While growers compete with a 6 to 8-foot tree, the one subsequently selected for the White House must measure exactly 18 feet 6 inches. The chandelier in the Blue Room is removed to accommodate the tree.

A White House delegation arrives in early October to make the selection. The delegation typically includes a groundskeeper, the head of the White House's decorating committee, and the chief usher, who handles the president's day-to-day organizational business. Botek says, "I asked the usher what he does. He said that the first thing he does every morning is say, 'Good morning, Mr. President.'"

The tree is donated in exchange for the obvious publicity. "It's all good for the industry, the fact that the White House has a real tree," Botek says. "It's good for everyone. It's good for agriculture."

There have been other opportunities for good publicity. Botek appeared on "The Martha Stewart Show" as the "tree expert" in 2006. In the winter of 2009, the movie "Branches" was filmed at Crystal Spring.

Harvesting happiness

With wholesale, retail and choose-and-cut services, Botek knows the value of having repeat customers. You can't be looking for new customers every year, so you have to take care of the ones you have.

Some customers have a hard time picking amid the quality selection at Crystal Spring. Botek gets involved in selections when prompted or if he sees a familiar face. It's rewarding work. "I always say that my first 40 hours each week is my job; the second 40 hours is my hobby," he says.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.