By KATHRYN BERMINGHAM
THE rows of trees at Dandenong Christmas Tree Farm are planted perfectly straight. As they grow, they’ll be lovingly fertilised, pruned and protected until they’re ready to be picked, cut and sent home with families excited to begin their Christmas celebrations. It’s part of a culture focused on delivering customers the perfect tree, as KATHRYN BERMINGHAM discovered.
A MUCH-LOVED local icon, the Dandenong Christmas Tree Farm was started by Jim and Lorna Boucher some 55 years ago.
It spent many years at its original Dandenong site, building a reputation for growing quality Christmas trees and opening its doors for families to come and pick their own.
Both Neil Cranston and Neale Drury had been long-time employees of the farm when it was forced off the land in 2000 to make way for the construction of Eastlink.
Not wanting to see the business dissipate, they stepped in and took over.
“The family didn’t want to go on with the farm so we purchased the business name, but we had to move elsewhere because of the freeway,” Neil explained.
Now operating over sites in Tynong, Nar Nar Goon and Officer, Neil and Neale have spent their careers planting, nurturing and eventually cutting to provide customers with their ideal tree.
With a total of 60-70 acres of land, there’s no disputing that it’s a big job.
In the eight weeks spanning June and July they plant 20,000 Christmas trees, after which it becomes a matter of ensuring that the trees are kept in ideal growing conditions.
“Weed control is very important,” Neil said.
“It’s better that the nutrition goes to the tree rather than to a whole heap of weeds.”
There’s also a fertilising program carried out as well as testing to determine the mineral quality of the soil.
Spring and autumn are the pruning seasons, when each tree is cut down to the ideal Christmas tree shape, which Neale Drury describes as “a perfect cone shape with a nice point on top.”
“I describe it as walking around in circles all day,” he said.
“You go around one tree pruning, then you go around the next one.”
Rain works in their favor during the pruning seasons. The job is physically demanding, making it difficult to do in the warm, and the knife slides through the branches easier when they’re wet.
As with any farming, each year there’s the potential to lose crop and some years fare better than other.
“Rabbits and hares are a problem,” Neil said.
“A hare will go along a row and just take out a big chunk, it could take out 20-30 trees in one night.”
However if the trees are well drained, exposed to the right amount of moisture and kept safe from hares and rabbits, Neil says at least 80 per cent of those planted survive.
Some trees are sold after three or four years, while others may grow for much longer depending on what size people would like their trees – the average is six feet.
The work never ends, but this time of year is particularly busy for the Christmas tree farmers ahead of their upcoming opening to the public. They accept the demanding hours and often physically demanding nature of the work. From now until Christmas, they’ll work from around 5am-10pm tending to the trees.
“Between now and Christmas it’s extra hard,” Neil said.
“It is what it is. We’re Christmas tree growers. You only sell them once a year and we’ve been in it long enough to know that that’s how it has to be.”
Up to 30 seasonal staff will be brought in to help with sales and deliveries – necessary help for them to keep up their high standards of customer service.
As well as cutting the trees, staff will net them to help with transportation. They also supply trees for several groups to sell as fund-raisers, including the Scouts.
Neil’s wife Robyn, who handles the administration of the business, says although it’s a busy time, the staff enjoy working with customers.
“We have people who come back year after year and end up bringing their own children,” she said.
“You really get the best of people.”
Neil and Neale are quick to qualify that’s it hard yet rewarding work. The Dandenong Christmas Tree Farm was across the road from the school Neale Drury attended and he worked there part-time when they needed help. It was a casual job that would turn into a lifelong devotion.
“I like that it’s outdoors,” he said.
“Seeing all the families come up and the kids getting a kick out of picking their tree – that’s probably the best part.”
Once his involvement with the tree is done, Neil says there is an amount of care involved in ensuring that the tree lasts as long as possible.
“People must water their trees daily – they’ll drink a minimum of two litres a day,” he said.
“Providing that it’s watered, that’s essential, it should last four weeks.”
And to those who think the real Christmas tree will be replaced by its fake counterpart, Neil says it’s never been an issue.
“Our clientele doesn’t really seem to change that much, which indicates that’s it’s not really dipping,” he said.
“It’s certainly holding its own.”