The scent of his own homegrown Christmas tree is a big part of You Cut owner-operator Mike Vanderklooster’s most wonderful time of the year.
“When our tree’s in here, when you come in the house, you can smell it,” he smiled, a fragrance including not only evergreen trees, but the wreaths offered for sale out of their barn, infused with a hint of hot apple cider.
“It smells like Christmas.”
Christmas trees are Vanderklooster’s passion, an offshoot of his dream to move to the country realized via a nine-acre property south of Woodstock purchased in 1996. Years earlier, Vanderklooster had worked in vegetables before beginning a 31-year career at CAMI and the desire to do something both productive and agriculturally-based with his acreage remained.
“We didn’t want animals,” he said of a progressive quest on what to do with their ground. The answer came via his wife’s dad’s friend who had grown Christmas trees north of town near the Oxford Drive-In, but was getting out of the industry.
“I thought hey, there’s an opportunity,” Vanderklooster recalled.
His progessive seven-acre plantation for a planned ‘you cut’ operation began going into the ground in 1997 with trees sourced for the St. Williams Nursery, fuelled essentially by what was available, rather than by species.
“I just jumped in,” said Vanderklooster, who would eventually transition from his original spruce trees to balsam fir and pine. “That’s what everyone wanted.”
His species evolution would continue through balsam and Fraser fir, onward to include Scotch pine, Serbian Spruce and Caanan fir. With the closure of the St. Williams Nursery, he evolved to sourcing seedlings from wholesalers in Chatham or Barrie.
Christmas tree farmers play the long game, a minimum of seven to eight years says Vanderklooster before you can expect any income.
“At the beginning, you’re spending money and nothing is coming in.”
Weather can also be a factor. Last year for example, some areas in the United States and even in Ontario experienced a dearth of rainfall, threatening an investment of around $1.50 a tree, depending on variety and how many are in an order.
“People were saying 1,000 trees are dead,” he said. “Two thousand dollars in the ground and within a summer, they all die.”
Because of his limited acreage and frugal nature, Vanderklooster approached his plantation with basic equipment. In practice, his son would dig the holes, and with judicious application of root rescue, he or he and his spouse follow up to plant the trees. His are spaced five feet apart on rows six feet apart, roughly 1,200 to the acre. When supplemental watering is required, his methodology is hand-bombing five-gallon pails filled from a water wagon.
“Not that simple,” he smiled, “but that simple.”
He does fertilize his trees in modest amounts.
“A little bit because you don’t want to burn them.”
Vanderklooster cuts the grass and does additional ‘weeding’ down the rows with a hand-held pump sprayer.
“I tried equipment but I find doing it by hand is more precise.”
There is an element of science in growing Christmas trees, which prefer a specific pH level in the soil. Growers must also counter diseases, such as a fungus which attacks Colorado Blues, or aphids which seem to appreciate his balsam fir trees. Trying to keep things as natural as possible, Vanderklooster purchases ladybugs to introduce to the latter.
“I find the ladybugs do it, they keep it under control.”
He begins shaping trees in their third or fourth season, using either a knife or clippers.
“It’s just trying to make that cone shape,” explains Vanderklooster, who has learned over the years that ‘less is indeed more.’ Earlier on, he was trying to make every tree ‘perfect.’
“But people don’t want perfect, they want more natural.”
Trees are ready for harvest somewhere between seven and nine years says Vanderklooster.
“It depends on how much rain we get, fertilizer, weed control… and then it’s just up to Mother Nature.”
Five years after his initial planting, Vanderklooster brought in trees for sale out of their garage.
“Just to get the market going, to let people know we were out here.”
When he began selling his own, he put one price on every tree regardless of species or size for simplicity. In practice, some people want larger trees, others have space more conducive to smaller examples. He also still brings in some wholesale trees for resale for customers who prefer that option.
“They don’t want to cut their own, but they want the experience of coming out here in the country to get a Christmas tree.”
In the end, an experience helping form family tradition is equally as important to those cutting their own trees as the tree itself.
“It’s both,” said Vanderklooster. “That’s what ‘You Cut’ is, a lot of it is the experience too.”
That was evident through COVID, his busiest years on record, with clients travelling from as far away as Toronto, given other You Cuts were either closed or sold out.
“People wanted to get out.”
Vanderklooster’s selling season opens the final weekend in November, running through the ensuing Friday, Saturday and Sundays prior to Christmas from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. After clients cut their trees, they are shaken and baled at checkout, where hot apple cider is also available.
In a manner of speaking, the operation is his ‘baby’, started from nothing and grown into an enjoyable business through hard work and determination. It wasn’t easy working around his job and family responsibilities with his wife and children, but it has always been a labour of love.
“I have a passion for it.”
It’s a passion he is able to share through the Christmas season with repeat customers and their kids who’ve grown from babies to adults over his 20 years of operation. To see the smiles on their faces reflecting something of his love for the sounds and scents of the Christmas season is an additional reward.
“For the most part, everyone who comes here is in a good mood,” he concluded. “They’re here with their families, they’re doing their traditions.”