Christmas tree tradition takes root in Ashfield

Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Al Pieropan began planting Christmas trees along Pfersick Road in Ashfield in 1956. Since then, generations of families have made the Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm a holiday destination as they hunt for the perfect cut-your-own Christmas tree.

Pieropan, who turned 84 this year, called last Christmas his final one on the farm. He began searching for someone to take over the tree business when he was diagnosed with a rare tick-borne disease that’s made it hard for him to work the land that he’s cared for over 50 years. He finally met Emmet Van Driesche, the land’s new steward, in 2008.

“I’m happy he’s decided to go into the tree business,” Pieropan said.

Van Driesche never wanted to be a tree farmer. He and his wife Cecilia began renting Pieropan’s old farmhouse in 2008 and it was then, during the height of the recession, that Pieropan began teaching Van Driesche the tree trade, hoping that he might one day be able pass the torch.

Tree farming turned out to be a perfect fit for Van Driesche who now manages the business and all 10 acres of Christmas trees.

“I grew up Westhampton. I could just wander into the woods and cut down any old tree, but I never thought I would have a Christmas tree farm,” Van Driesche said.

Van Driesche isn’t a Pieropan, but the legacy of the farm hasn’t been lost on him.

“This farm means so much to so many people,” Van Driesche said. “People have been cutting their Christmas trees here for over 40 years. They have a connection with this place that I have, but their connection goes back generations.”

The trees nurtured on the Ashfield hillside are grown using a rare sustainable tree growing practice called coppicing or “stump culture.” Coppicing utilizes the established root system of the original tree so no new seedlings need to be planted. New trees are ready for harvest in about 7 years and are less susceptible to drought.

The unique growing method lets Van Driesche “piggy back” several trees onto one stump so that the next two generations of trees are growing under a tree that’s almost ready to cut.

“The beauty of this method is that it is not mechanized, so our overhead is really low,” Van Driesche said.

That low overhead comes at a cost; the work is dirty and laborious.

Van Driesche and Lauren Bruns — his only part-time employee — fell trees with small sharp handsaws and haul bulky 50-pound bundles of prickly Balsam Fir bows out of the forest on their backs. The greens are turned into wreaths and decorative roping.

“There is no way around the physical work, you just have to do the work,” Van Driesche said.

The farm is by no means making Van Driesche rich, at least not financially. Aside from the tree farm, he edits scientific manuscripts and works for the Trustees of Reservations at the Bullitt Reservation in Ashfield, where he maintains the grounds, builds trails and teaches gardening workshops.

The tree farm is truly a labor of love.

“We only charge $25 for a tree from the ‘you-cut grove,’ any size,” Van Driesche said. “When we first started doing this we were just barely scraping buy, but it felt good to me that I wasn’t selling something that someone like me couldn’t afford.”

Today, the farm is home to thousands of deep green Balsam Firs that blanket the hillside, filling the Ashfield air with the sweet piney scent that many of us associate with the holidays.

Van Driesche is excited to open the grove to families the day after Thanksgiving and expects to sell between 500 and 700 trees this season. In addition to trees, people can buy wreathes and fresh-cut roping from the little woodstove-heated cabin parked in front of the “you-cut grove” on Pfersick Road.

Van Driesche said, “I feel like a steward of the land, but I also feel like a steward of the tradition that Al started. There are all these people who come out during the Christmas season and this place means so much to them. And to sort of hold that in my hand and take care of that for them feels really satisfying.”


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