He had done dairy, beef, sheep, potatoes and even market gardening in England. But when Nigel Manley was given an ultimatum by The Rocks Estate nonprofit board – learn to grow Christmas trees or no longer be grounds keeper on the Bethlehem property – Manley headed for the trees.
(Growing them, that is).
That was in 1989. Manley was just 27 years old at the time, and in a slightly Charlie Brown-esque twist, he sold only 12 trees the first year they were ready to cut.
Now the farm director and in his 30th year of working on the Forest Society’s 1,400 acre property, Manley sells considerably more than a dozen trees each year.
The Rocks Estate does wholesale, pick-your-own and mail order sales; makes custome wreaths; offers a “New Hampshire Maple Experience,” hosts weddings, gives private tours, and works with school groups, too.
“A lot of farms I know are doing a lot of different things to do with agri-tourism,” Manley said. “I think for us it’s a natural progression . . . we’re trying to make it more sustainable.”Education first
As The Rocks Estate slowly grew in its offerings, Manley said education has always been the priority. While many visitor opportunities are newer, the Forevergreen Program with the Bethlehem Elementary School has been in place for more than a decade.
“They plant the trees in kindergarten,” Manley said. “Then they harvest them in sixth grade.”
In between, he said students do different things with the trees each year, like learning how to shave the trees and shape them.
“That’s always interesting, getting them to not chop the wrong bits off . . . or themselves,” Manley said.
The 30 or so fifth grade Forevergreen students at the tree farm on Monday, however, seemed like they knew exactly what they were doing.
They sang carols, formed a hand-off line and put a hand-written note on each Christmas tree. They then helped load 594 Christmas trees into two Fed-Ex box trucks, ready to take the trees to military families in Georgia through the national program, Trees for Troops, put on by the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation.
Manley said this was the 12th year The Rocks Estate has helped organize a local effort, supported by various sponsors and numerous tree farms throughout New Hampshire and Vermont.
On Monday, volunteers from Mountain Star Farm in Swiftwater and members of the local Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association turned out to help with the loading.
“We’ve been doing this for six years,” Nate Smith, the Combat Vets local chapter XO and a veteran of the Iraq War.
“It’s to help our brothers in arms,” he said, “plus it’s getting us out in the community.”Changing interests
This time of year on a given day, Manley has 22 people working for him, plus about 40 volunteers. The Rock Estate sells between 5,000 and 6,000 trees around Christmas,
Finding help to cut, ship or supervise as thousands of people pick their own trees during the holidays can get stressful in the fields and the parking lots, Manley said. It’s even more difficult, though, to round up enough local help to care for the property’s 50,000 trees, plus run all the agri-tourism activities, year-round.
“Farming is not easy and I think people romanticize it,” Manley said. Shaving trees in summertime – every one of those 50,000 gets a trim – is all “wet feet, sticking, usually too hot, whatever you wear to prune you have to throw away.” And then there are the ticks.
“It’s difficult now to get people who want to do that,” Manley said.
He did say that he lucked out this year with “one of the best crews ever.” And though they may not want to do it themselves, interest in the farming lifestyle, Manley said, is growing among visitors.
People want to go on private tours, for instance, looking at wildlife tracks, spying out porcupine dens, learning about the history of the estate, examining its gardens, and even tapping their own tree.
Along these same lines, the property also does 700 bus tours each year.
“It’s cool that people actually want to learn about it,” Manley said. With the whole “buy local” and local food movements, he said the last 10 years have created a “night and day” difference in visitor interests.
“Now it’s almost like we’re ahead of the curve, which is strange,” he said.Opportunities
Though The Rocks Estate is a Forest Society nonprofit, Manley is capitalizing on any business opportunities to increase the viability of a tree farm that is otherwise too far away from population centers to sell just retail.
The tree farm is part of a new, national Christmas Tree Promotion Board campaign, passing out stickers reading “It’s Christmas: Keep it real.”
“The idea is to promote forest grown trees instead of plastic jobbies,” Manley said. “The artificial tree – that’s just a killer.”
Out in the sprawling fields of Christmas trees, Manley has other draws for families not looking just for a tree, but an experience. A new “tree maze” is now outlined in orange plastic fencing, and a large sign with the farm name is set up for photographs.
Marketing, Manley said, has become almost an equally important job as the growing and the crop. In a survey conducted last year, he said the horse-drawn rides, then the staff, then the wreaths were in people’s top three favorite things.
“The trees were like an afterthought at fourth,” he said.
For farms wanting to stay in business growing food or other crops, and for people hoping to keep rural land in active use (and undeveloped), Manley said the Forest Society’s Bethlehem project might be a good model to follow.
“I do show the potential to people – what they can do with their farms,” he said. Agritourism, Manley said, has been the way he’s witnessed farms around the country keep going as others have shut down.
People seem to be noticing the same thing at The Rocks Estate.
“I’ve had people come now and they’ve come for 20 years,” Manley said. “They’re excited the farm is still going.”
(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter