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Perched on a small rise of land, Glenn Desroches climbs out of his truck and pauses, his eye surveying neat rows of trees as tiny chickadees flit, fly and chirp at him.

“It’s my favourite spot,” he announced contentedly. “I can see everything from here.”

Desroches is planted in the middle of his Tiny Township Christmas tree farm, a sprawling 30 acres boasting six varieties: Scotch pine, white pine, white spruce, Norway spruce, Douglas fir and Fraser fir.

The family-run operation is 70 years strong. Desroches grew up in the business, and is the third generation to farm the firs and pines.

“I enjoy doing it. This is my stress relief after my other job.”

Working part time after his regular “day” job keeps it manageable, rather than pressure packed.

“I see people jogging to keep physically fit. This is my workout,” he said. “It’s a lot of work on my part, but the tranquility, peace and quiet while I’m out here is what appeals to me. There’s nobody to bother me except the birds chirping, the odd deer I see while I’m pruning, and some wild turkeys. It’s my own little heaven.”

It may be heavenly, but it’s also a lot of work – and not just during December’s hectic harvest.

“In the spring of the year, I purchase seedlings and get the land ready to plant.”

How many seedlings, exactly? About a thousand.

“The rule of thumb is you usually put in about 1,000 trees per acre,” Desroches explained.

With sales of about that number every year, spring is busy as he replenishes the supply. It takes about eight years until pine species are ready to cut for Christmas, while spruce and Fraser fir take longer to reach harvest height.

Every two or three years, Desroches applies fertilizer: “I don’t use any pesticides. Just a bit of fertilizer to help them green up, to give a bit of a boost, depending on the weather we’ve had.”

Summer is spent cutting grass to make it easier for pruning, which takes up July and August.

“The biggest misconception is people think that it just grows and, a few years later, you harvest it. There’s a lot of work in getting a tree nicely shaped. It doesn’t happen by itself.”

The next generation is already at work in the fields, helping prune the smaller trees. With wife Anne and children Glenn Jr., Isabelle, Emilie, Sophie and Madeleine, Desroches said, “We’re all in it together. The kids help, and I’m hoping the fourth generation will carry on the tradition.”

Fall tasks include servicing seasonal equipment such as chainsaws and the baler that wraps trees for transport.

Something Desroches doesn’t do is paint trees: “It’s a fad. It died right out years ago.”

In fact, Christmas tree farms are green operations in more ways than one. With its hilly nature, shallow sandy soil and rock-strewn landscape, the marginal land can’t support traditional crops.

“If it wasn’t a plantation, it would be a bare field. For every tree that’s cut, I replant another.”

Trees process carbon dioxide, thereby improving air quality, and the roots help hold the shallow soil in place.

Desroches explained, “Real trees are more environmentally friendly than an artificial tree, which is petroleum based. Once it’s in the landfill, it doesn’t decompose and you can’t compost it. After you’re done with a real tree, the county picks them up, chips them and composts them. Besides, there’s nothing quite like the smell of a real tree.”

Whether it’s the smell, the candy canes, the hot chocolate, the festive fun atmosphere or the family tradition, customers come back year after year to cut down their own Christmas tree.

“I have a lot of regulars. I’ve had the cut-your-own business for 18 years, and I still have some coming from Day 1. It’s neat to see them, to see the kids grow, to see what’s happening in their lives.”

And it’s not just the locals who love to trek to the tree farm for an annual December pilgrimage.

“I have people from as far away as Barrie and Hillsdale who come every year. There’s also quite a few cottagers who come, cut their own, and then go back to the city.”

He laughs and reminds everyone that trees in the field don’t look nearly as large as when they’re overwhelming a room in a house.

“It doesn’t look that big out here, but get it home and you have to cut a foot or two off,” he said, adding this year he plans to offer poles with an eight-foot line on them to add perspective to help people judge the tree’s height.

Desroches pronounced summer 2010 as a very good growing season.

“The trees have a dark, rich colour to them. Timely rain is the biggest thing, especially when planting seedlings. Once the roots are established, it’s hard for the tree to die off. About nine years ago, I lost 1,500 Fraser firs. It was a very hot summer and basically it fried them all. It’s part of farming,” he said with a shrug. “Farming is at the mercy of the big fella up there.”

Once the tree is home, water is key. With a little care, a Christmas tree will not just survive, but thrive throughout the entire holiday season.

“Water it religiously and you won’t have any problems. A little trick I’ve learned is to drill a number of holes in the stump,” Desroches said. “It leaves more area for the water to saturate into the trunk of the tree. If you keep the water to it, you will actually have green sprouts at the end of the branches by the time you take the tree out.”

Pesky pine needles strewn throughout the house can be avoided by using a large bag to cover and carry it curbside. Lee Valley Tools offers a reusable heavy-duty bag for just this purpose.

Cut-your-own begins this weekend and runs seven days a week until Christmas. The cost is $25, while the pre-cut trees are $30 and up, depending on the variety.

“Unlike the big wholesalers, I wait until the very last to cut them so they’re very fresh – fresher than any Christmas tree lot,” Desroches said.

Saws are provided and, like the hot chocolate and candy canes, baling is free.

“That’s a big plus. You’re not struggling with the tree, and it makes it easier to tie on the roof rack and bring it into your house.”

Desroches Tree Farm is at 334 Macavalley Rd., just outside Penetanguishene. Take Robert Street West, turn right on Lafontaine Road, and then make another right on Macavalley.

- Midland Mirror, Thursday, December 2, 2010