For the past three decades, Bill and Sharon Forbes have tended thousands of trees in the small hamlet of Emerson in the Cayuga County town of Conquest.
From Douglas and balsam Firs to white and Scotch pines, the family spent every fall and winter trimming the trees on their land and making wreaths in their barn. But this Christmas season will be much calmer for the Forbeses, as they've decided to retire.
The idea to grow Christmas trees on their land first sprouted in the mid-1980s, when the Forbes inherited the land from Bill's father. Bill, who worked full-time as a corrections officer at Auburn Correctional Facility, wanted to put the land to good use, but he wanted to do it part-time.
"We were trying to figure out what to do with the land ... and he just thought that (growing Christmas trees) was the best use we could get out of it," Sharon said.
At first, Bill began planting the trees by hand on the family's hillside in Emerson. His daughters, Cheryl Prior and Christine Fordyce, recalled learning how to plant Scotch pine Christmas trees in the late '80s. By the early '90s, Sharon said, the business had really begun to grow, and in November 1991, the Forbes officially opened Emerson Trees and Wreaths in Conquest. Then, in 1993, the couple built a barn on their land, which they used to house hundreds of pre-cut trees for the community.
Soon, the family had developed a routine, planting a few thousand trees each spring and shearing, spraying and mowing throughout the summer and early fall. As time went on, Sharon said they became better and better at growing high-quality Christmas trees.
"We learned what trees would grow here and what trees people liked," she said, laughing as she recalled a particularly bad crop of Australian pines. "It always came down to what people liked. Everybody likes a different kind of tree ... so we tried to have a variety of them."
Over the years, the Forbeses studied up on soil and the different chemicals they could use to kill bugs and weeds. They also invested in a tree planter and drainage tile.
Of course, the busiest time was from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Sharon said, when the trees were mature and ready for trimming.
From Black Friday through Christmas Eve, the family would have thousands of full-grown Christmas trees for the community to choose from, and while some were pre-cut, there were plenty for people to chop down themselves in the fields.
Plus, Fordyce said, there was the "cull pile" — the selection of Charlie Brown trees that Bill significantly marked down in price.
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"He always wanted to sell quality trees and if, come harvest time, he didn't think a tree met his very high standards, he'd put it in the cull pile," she said.
In addition to Christmas trees, the Forbes also sold hundreds of homemade wreaths each year. While her husband and sons-in-law were out in the fields shearing and trimming the trees, Sharon said she and her daughters were in the barn, cutting the brush and wrapping wreaths in ribbon. Then, as business boomed, Bill's sisters and some close friends also stopped to help.
"It was like a family reunion every weekend for about a month," Sharon said. "It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun."
Prior added, "Each year ... we worked together until the sun set and the job was finished. Spending quality time and long hours working hard to accomplish something together as a family never gets old."
But now, Sharon said, the time has come for the family to retire.
Bill and Sharon, now 65 and 63 years old, decided to close the business this year, as the work of owning a tree farm has become more and more difficult. What began as a part-time hobby in the '80s later turned into a full-time job, and that was on top of their other full-time careers.
"There's less and less tree farms all the time because there's so much work for them," Sharon said. "Sometimes you'd lose a few thousand trees each year because of the weather or bugs. ... It was tough."
But, she said, Emerson Trees and Wreaths was still special. Over the years, Sharon recalled the bond she and her husband shared with members of the community, families who had made the farm part of their own tradition.
"We had a special relationship with the community that would come back year after year after year," she said. "It was a tradition for many families and people would thank us for everything we did. ... We had generations of people visiting our farm."
"My sister and I admire our parents," Prior added. "We are proud they were owners of a small business, which helped shaped wonderful Christmas memories and traditions for so many families in the surrounding communities."