The Best Way to Grow Trees
by Shannon Berteau of Bend, OR
A book review of “Carving Out a Living on the Land: Lessons in Resourcefulness and Craft from an Unusual Christmas Tree Farm” by Emmet Van Driesche
Every year my family has to alternate between two methods for how we get our Christmas tree. My husband, having grown up acquiring trees from regular Christmas tree farms, loves the perfectly pruned and bushy variety. I love tromping around the forest to find the perfect Charlie Brown version to take home. The farm owned and operated by Emmet Van Driesche in western Massachusetts might have the best of both worlds. It is a wild place, yet cultivated. His Christmas tree farm is unusual – as stated in the title – because it is a coppiced Christmas tree farm. Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management where the trees are periodically cut down to their stumps in order to entice them to put out new shoots that form into trees in their own right, given proper care and time and space.
Starting out as a $7/hour employee of Al Pioropan, the original owner of the Christmas Tree Farm in Ashfield, which was conversationally known as the Pioropan Christmas Tree Farm, Van Driesche found that he enjoyed the work. Pioropan had been looking for someone to take over five of the ten acres still in “production,” so they worked out an arrangement for that to happen. Van Driesche eventually took over the whole business, and continues to operate one of probably only two coppiced Christmas tree farms in the east. Van Driesche states in the opening pages, “Carving Out a Living on the Land is a practical book about a specific farm, but it’s not a blueprint for other farmers… Our farm is the result of the combination of the circumstances my family found ourselves in, and what we’ve made of those opportunities.”
Here is a lovely description of how the trees grow:
“My trees do not march in rows across a field, but rather spring out of the ground in loose affiliations knit together by a lacework of paths… [They grow] out of the top or sides of a stump that has a thick skirt of branches. These branches keep the stump alive; each year the stump sends out dozens of new shoots, each one vying to be the new tree. Unlike conventional Christmas tree farms, my problem isn’t buying enough seedlings to meet demand ten years down the road, or keeping newly planted stock alive through a summer drought. My problem is abundance, the sheer exuberance of nature that tries to produce a dozen trees where I want just one. Shoots erupt from the rim of the stump, from the bark on the sides, and from the tops of branches. Sometimes whole branches start to curve up and make a bid for the sky. This is truly a managed forest and the thousands of deciduous saplings springing up everywhere remind me that the forest is always just a couple years of idleness away from reclaiming its sovereignty.”
I am always inspired when people send us their stories about what they are doing on their farms. This book feels like an extended version of that: very accessible, just the right amount of detail, and full of practical information. In its pages we learn the chronology of The Pioropan Christmas Tree Farm, but also the timeline of Van Driesche becoming a farmer. It is inspirational and well written; a joy to read. The explanation for this is given in the Foreword of the book, which is written by a professor of a nonfiction writing seminar at Bard College which Van Driesche attended. He calls Van Driesche resourceful, inventive, a traditionalist, and a hard worker. He is someone that most of you “would probably welcome on your farms… That Emmet happens also to write well might seem like nothing more than a pleasant surprise… In a list of desirable agricultural attributes most farmers would put ‘good writer’ way below ‘good pinochle player’ — and miles and miles behind, say, ‘good hydraulic mechanic.’” The conversational spirit he describes in Van Driesche’s writing continues throughout the book making it a quick read that makes you feel like you get to know him not just as a farmer, but a person.
His farm consists of ten acres of trees that produce an income, cost very little to maintain, and provide a great degree of flexibility in terms of pricing and supplemental income opportunities. Van Driesche demonstrates his ingenuity in the sheer number of ways he has expanded his income: making wreathes, carving spoons and spoon blanks for other carvers, teaching spoon carving, making scythe handles, teaching scything, mowing with a scythe, and growing willow for basket makers. All of this is timed with the seasonal levels of work that the trees require. He has found a way to make a living as a farmer and enjoy the work that he does. I believe this is something we should all strive for.
We have fewer farmers today than in days past. A greater percentage of our population lives separate from the face to face realities of an agricultural lifestyle. It is a gift to be able to share your farming escapades in ways that the public can comprehend. This book has something for everyone: the person hoping to glean experience from others before embarking on a life as a farmer, a city-dweller who is curious about how a creative young person can make a life in farming today, and the day to day farmer who can commiserate with the workload and share in the beauty of a life lived with their own two hands.
Carving Out a Living on the Land: Lessons in Resourcefulness and Craft from an Unusual Christmas Tree Farm, ©2019 by Emmet Van Driesche. Chelsea Green Publishing. ISBN: 9781603588263