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10 Secrets of Christmas Tree Farmers

Patrick, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Patrick, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A Christmas tree may occupy a corner of your living room, and your consciousness, for only a few weeks each winter. But it and its evergreen ilk are a full-time, year-round preoccupation at the thousands of farms across the country that grow holiday pines and firs and spruces. And there’s a lot more to the business than sticking trees in dirt and then chopping them off at the trunk a few years later. Mental Floss tracked down some of the men and women working on farms around the nation to learn some of the secrets of their trade.

1. THE TREES THEY GROW NOW ARE DIFFERENT THAN THE TREES THEY GREW FOR OUR PARENTS.

Americans love firs. The type available at your local tree stand or choose-and-cut farm depends on conditions in each of the states that grow them. Rainy weather in Oregon—which sells some 7 million trees a year, the most of any state—is favorable to noble firs. Frasers thrive in North Carolina’s mid-range elevations, where it’s cold in winter and cool in summer; balsams are native to Vermont. But 40 years ago, folks were partial to un-manicured spruces and Scotch pines. These trees were “taller, spindlier, and had barren gaps between the branches, which were conducive to [decorating with] candles,” Luke Laplant, who sells trees from Vermont’s Windswept Farms on the streets of Brooklyn, tells Mental Floss.

What can we expect for the next big trend in trees? Marsha Gray, director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, says that growers have lately been experimenting with exotic species like short-needled Turkish and compact Korean firs.

2. THEIR CUSTOMERS HAVE SOME … UNUSUAL IDEAS.

Customers bringing home a Christmas tree
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Doug Hundley, a retired grower from North Carolina, still laughs about misconceptions he heard from customers at the farm he owned for 30 years. To wit: They imagined that the tidy rows of trees planted on his five acres had magically sprung from seeds dropped from a nearby pine stand. In fact, tree farms are usually launched with young, 3-to-5-year-old trees purchased from specialty nurseries, which are planted in 5-foot by 5-foot grids— about 1700 trees per acre. An acre of additional trees is planted every year, and after eight or nine years, “You’ll have that first acre starting to come ready” to sell, Hundley tells Mental Floss. Trees to replace them go in the ground soon after the initial batch comes down, staggered about a foot away from the leftover stumps, which quickly rot away.

Many of Laplant’s customers ask about adding supposed “preservatives,” like Sprite or aspirin, to the tree water in the stand. But he says these stunts are unnecessary for keeping trees green. “Just make sure you make a fresh cut to the bottom of the trunk before you put it in the stand, so it doesn’t scar over, and check it for water every day,” he advises.

3. THEY HAVE A DIFFERENT TASK FOR EVERY SEASON.

Christmas tree farmers are like farmers of every other crop: They rarely have time for vacations. There’s a brief lull in activity during winter, once the year’s trees have been cut and the farm goes dormant. But otherwise, there’s work to be done in every season. Hundley explains, “Starting in March, we’re really busy planting more trees and fertilizing. In summer, we’re managing weeds and insects and shearing the trees.” Then it’s fall again—harvest time; farmers start collecting wreath-making greenery as early as October, and the actual tree-cutting lasts through December.

4. THEY WORK (REALLY) HARD TO BRING YOU THAT CONICAL SHAPE.

Christmas trees at a Christmas tree farm
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That stereotypical tapered Christmas tree silhouette doesn’t happen all by itself. It’s the result of heavy hand labor over time. For two months beginning in July, workers head out to the fields with knives and other tools to shear the trees, cutting off new branches and needles from the sides in order to slow down growth and encourage a fuller, more pleasing shape. Every tree gets whittled down like this every year, which is why it takes almost a decade for it to reach its desired height of six or seven feet, rather than, say, four years.

5. NATURE IS CRUEL, BUT SCIENCE IS TRYING TO HELP.

The number one blight on Fraser firs is phytophthora root rot, which causes needles to turn yellow and fall off. This troublesome oomycete (related to algae) can’t be controlled with chemicals. So, evergreen farmers have been attempting to breed disease-resistant trees: Frasers are grafted onto rootstock from Abies firma (a.k.a. the momi fir). It’s native to Japan, and it’s supposed to have serious oomycete-repelling properties. Hundley says positive effects from these efforts have been slow to manifest, though.

6. THEY ALL AGREE: FAKE CHRISTMAS TREES ARE THE ENEMY.

Red Christmas ball on a background white artificial spruce
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“Nine years in the house, nine million years in the landfill.” That’s a phrase popular among real-Christmas-tree farmers to describe their nemeses, plastic “pines”—many of which are imported into the U.S. from China. Hundley remarks that sustainability-minded Teddy Roosevelt banned Christmas trees from the White House during his time in office, in order to protect trees growing wild in forests. But, “We don’t harvest wild” anymore, says Hundley, adding, “Would you buy artificial roses to give your [spouse] on Valentine’s Day?”

7. ENVIRONMENTALISM IS PART OF THE BUSINESS.

Unlike their plastic counterparts, real trees get returned to the land once we’re done with them, in the form of mulch. Farms full of live trees can also offer environmental benefits: The trees hold the soil against erosion, and they provide habitat for hosts of beneficial critters such as ladybird beetles and spiders, as well as birds, rabbits, and deer. These farms’ secondary function as wildlife hotels has caused growers to adopt more eco-friendly pest management techniques in the last 25 years, according to Hundley—including scaling back on pesticides. “We’re trying to create the most ecological environment we can,” he says.

8. THEY FEAR THE WASP.

Wasps in a yew tree
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Harboring wildlife comes with a downside: wasps, which are attracted to the sweet “honeydew” produced by sap-sucking aphids that feed off the trees. Wasps can be ornery when disturbed—like when crews of workers head out to shear trees in July. “The rule is,” Hundley says, “if you hear a loud humming, you put down your (very sharp) knife and take off running. And when one guy runs, everyone runs—you don’t wait to see where the sound is coming from.”

9. HARVESTING HAPPENS FAST.

There’s a short window of time in which to get trees to market—about a week or two, according to Gray. That’s because a cut tree exposed to sun and wind quickly starts to dry out and shed its needles. Growers with small farms may rely on family members to cut each tree with a chainsaw, shake the dead needles off it, then bale and stack it somewhere cool and dark. “A lot of farmers have a stand of natural evergreen forest on their property, and they’ll store the cut trees in their shade” where they retain moisture, Hundley explains. Larger producers in the Pacific Northwest, who grow millions of trees on thousands of acres, hire seasonal crews of 100 or more cutters and “slingers” to saw and stack. Gray says they use helicopters to get trees down the mountains and load them—as many as 1000 an hour—onto the flatbeds of market-bound trucks.

10. THEY WORK UP TO 16 HOURS A DAY IN THE SELLING SEASON.

A man cutting down a Christmas tree
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“Our Brooklyn stand is open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but I get here earlier to set up and afterwards, there are deliveries and lots of cleanup,” says Laplant. To keep warm, he relies on layers of long underwear, a waterproof hooded coat, plenty of extra socks (he travels down with 40 pairs) and gloves (12 pairs). “On a rainy day, gloves get wet after you handle the first 10 trees, so you have to swap them out,” he says. Other annoyances: people who let their dogs pee on the trees or who aggressively pull at the needles then complain that they’re falling out. What makes the aggravations worth it: For Laplant and his coworkers, it’s getting delicious food delivered from all over town.

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of TV Meteorologists
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The first weather forecast to hit national network television was given in 1949 by legendary weatherman Clint Youle. To illustrate weather systems, Youle covered a paper map of the U.S. in plexiglass and drew on it with a marker. A lot has changed in the world of meteorology since then, but every day, millions of families invite their local weatherman or weatherwoman into their living room to hear the forecast. Here are a few things you might not know about being a TV meteorologist.

1. SOME PEOPLE JUST NEVER MASTER THE GREEN SCREEN.

A view of a meteorologist as seen on-screen and in the studio against a green screen
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On-camera meteorologists might look as if they’re standing in front of a moving weather map, but in reality, there’s nothing except a blank green wall behind them. Thanks to the wonders of special effects, a digital map can be superimposed onto the green screen for viewers at home. TV monitors situated just off-camera show the meteorologist what viewers at home are seeing, which is how he or she knows where to stand and point. It’s harder than it looks, and for some rookie meteorologists, the learning curve can be steep.

“Some people never learn it,” says Gary England, legendary weatherman and former chief meteorologist for Oklahoma’s KWTV (England was also the first person to use Doppler radar to warn viewers about incoming systems). “For some it comes easily, but I’ve seen people never get used to it.”

Stephanie Abrams, meteorologist and co-host of The Weather Channel’s AMHQ, credits her green screen skills to long hours spent playing Nintendo and tennis as a kid. “You’ve gotta have good hand-eye coordination,” she says.

2. THEY HAVE A STRICT DRESS CODE.

Green is out of the question for on-air meteorologists, unless they want to blend into the map, but the list of prohibited wardrobe items doesn’t stop there. “Distracting prints are a no-no,” Jennifer Myers, Dallas-based meteorologist for KDFW FOX 4 writes on Reddit. “Cleavage angers viewers over 40 something fierce, so we stay away from that. There's no length rule on skirts/dresses but if you wouldn't wear it to a family event, you probably shouldn't wear it on TV. Nothing reflective. Nothing that makes sound.”

Myers says she has enough dresses to go five weeks without having to wear a dress twice. But all the limitations can make it difficult to find work attire that’s fashionable, looks good on-screen, and affordable. This is especially true for women, which is why when they find a garment that works, word spreads quickly. For example, this dress, which sold for $23 on Amazon, was shared in a private Facebook group for female meteorologists and quickly sold out in every color but green.

3. BUT IT’S CASUAL BELOW THE KNEE.

Since their feet rarely appear on camera, some meteorologists take to wearing casual, comfortable footwear, especially on long days. For example, England told the New York Times that during storm season, he was often on his feet for 12 straight hours. So, “he wears Mizuno running shoes, which look ridiculous with his suit and tie but provide a bit of extra cushioning,” Sam Anderson writes.

And occasionally female meteorologists will strap their mic pack to their calves or thighs rather than the more unpleasant option of stuffing it into their waistband or strapping it onto their bra.

4. THERE ARE TRICKS TO STAYING WARM IN A SNOWSTORM.

A young TV weatherperson in a snowy scene
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“In the field when I’m covering snow storms, I go to any pharmacy and get those back patches people wear, those heat wraps, and stick them all over my body,” explains Abrams. “Then I put on a wet suit. When you’re out for as long as we are, that helps you stay dry. I have to be really hot when I go out for winter storms.”

5. THERE’S NO SCRIPT.

Your local TV weather forecaster is ad-libbing from start to finish. “Our scripts are the graphics we create,” says Jacob Wycoff, a meteorologist with Western Mass News. “Generally speaking we’re using the graphics to talk through our stories, but everything we say is ad-libbed. Sometimes you can fumble the words you want to say, and sometimes you may miss a beat, but I think what that allows you to do is have a little off-the-cuff moment, which I think the viewers enjoy.”

6. MOM’S THE AUDIENCE.

Part of a meteorologist’s job is to break down very complicated scientific terminology and phenomena into something the general public can not only stomach, but crave. “The trick is … to approach the weather as if you're telling a story: Who are the main actors? Where is the conflict? What happens next?” explains Bob Henson, a Weather Underground meteorologist. “Along the way, you have the opportunity to do a bit of teaching. Weathercasters are often the only scientists that a member of the public will encounter on a regular basis on TV.”

Wycoff’s method for keeping it simple is to pretend like he’s having a conversation with his mom. “I’d pretend like I was giving her the forecast,” he says. “If my mom could understand it, I felt confident the general audience could as well. Part of that is also not using completely science-y terms that go over your audience’s head.”

7. SOCIAL MEDIA HAS MADE THEIR JOBS MORE DIFFICULT.

Professional meteorologists spend a lot of time debunking bogus forecasts spreading like wildfire across Twitter. “We have a lot of social media meteorologists that don’t have necessarily the background or training to create great forecasts,” Wycoff says. “We have to educate our viewers that they should know the source they’re getting information from.”

“People think it’s as easy as reading a chart,” says Scott Sistek, a meteorologist and weather blogger for KOMO TV in Seattle. “A lot of armchair meteorologists at home can look at a chart and go ok, half an inch of rain. But we take the public front when it’s wrong.”

8. THEY MAKE LIFE-OR-DEATH DECISIONS.

A meteorologist forecasting a hurricane
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People plan their lives around the weather forecast, and when a storm rolls in, locals look to their meteorologist for guidance on what to do. If he or she gets the path of a tornado wrong, or downplays its severity, people’s lives are in danger. “If you miss a severe weather forecast and someone’s out on the ball field and gets stuck, someone could get injured,” says Wycoff. “It is a great responsibility that we have.”

Conversely, England says when things get dangerous, some people are reluctant to listen to a forecaster’s advice because they don’t like being told what to do. He relies on a little bit of psychological maneuvering to get people to take cover. “You suggest, you don’t tell,” he says. “You issue instructions but in a way where they feel like they’re making up their own minds.”

9. DON’T BANK ON THOSE SEVEN-DAY FORECASTS.

“I would say that within three days, meteorologists are about 90 percent accurate,” Wycoff says. “Then at five days we’re at about 60 percent to 75 percent and then after seven days it becomes a bit more wishy-washy.”

10. THEY’RE FRENEMIES.

The competition for viewers is fierce, and local meteorologists are all rivals in the same race. “When you’re in TV, all meteorologists at other competitors are the enemy,” England says. “You’re not good friends with them. They try to steal the shoes off your children and food off your plate. If they get higher ratings, they get more money.”

11. THEY’RE TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME JOKE OVER AND OVER.

“There’s always the running joke: ‘I wish I could be paid a million dollars to be wrong 80 percent of the time,’” Sistek says. “I wanted to have a contest for who can come up with the best weatherman insult, because we need something new! Let’s get creative here.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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