Sharing Christmas cheer
by Sally Colby
Between operating a Christmas tree farm, an orchard, a tree nursery and raising five children, Matt and Sonya Showers have a lot to juggle.
When Matt’s grandparents purchased property in Aspers, PA, the acreage was used for orchards and beef cattle. “In 1963, they started growing evergreens,” said Sonya. “Matt’s father managed it until Matt turned 18, then Matt and I took over managing it for his grandparents. The year of their 50th anniversary, my husband and I purchased everything and took over.”
As the third generation on the farm, Matt and Sonya kept much of the operation the same, but have gradually made changes to suit today’s customers. “When Matt and I started managing the farm, we added a little bit each year,” said Sonya, describing the Christmas season. “The craft store started out of our garage, then we cleaned out an old milk house to use. About four years ago, we redid the area underneath the barn and now the craft store is there.” Sonya said the craft area is popular among customers because she offers unique, handmade items that can’t be found elsewhere.
Matt’s mother had already been making fresh evergreen wreaths, and when Sonya took over that aspect, she added decorated wreaths. Sonya estimates that each year, she makes more than 1,000 wreaths in eight sizes, the largest at about 36 inches. Although circles are most popular, Sonya has made wreaths in the shapes of stars, candy canes and hearts. “Squares were popular several years ago,” she said, “and I usually do those with boxwood or eucalyptus.”
Sonya begins making wreaths in mid-November, using fresh-cut greens from trees that either won’t be harvested or have had the tops harvested. Greens from the farm’s Fraser and Douglas firs are used in wreaths, along with purchased boxwood. “We’ll cut greens from a field and continue until we’re ready to clean up the whole field,” said Sonya. “Those trees regrow and I can use the greens.”
Sonya typically schedules several wreath-making events for the holiday season, and those sessions fill up quickly. She supplies greens and pinecones, and guests can bring decorations to customize their creations.
The Showerses grow evergreens on 180 acres, and apple harvest is finished in mid-November. “We move from picking apples to cutting Christmas trees,” said Sonya. “We start digging trees for the lot – we try to get them dug before the ground freezes.” Some cut trees are for wholesale accounts, mostly for fundraisers and small seasonal lots, and are shipped to several surrounding states.
The Showerses prefer to empty each tree field completely prior to replanting. Sonya uses the few fields where remaining trees aren’t suitable for harvest for fresh greens.
Once fields are cleared, stumps are ground, and depending on the field, replanting begins. Neighboring farmers rent some of the acreage for field crops to keep fields in rotation prior to replanting. “We try to replant fields that are already in evergreens within a year or two,” said Sonya. “If the soil isn’t the best, the field will be in corn or soybeans for longer.”
Christmas trees are for sale starting the day after Thanksgiving. Although some customers choose a pre-cut tree, many prefer to visit the fields to select and cut a tree. Rather than charging for attractions, the Showerses decided to include activities as part of the farm visit. “We try to keep it reasonable,” said Sonya. “People might be spending $55 to cut their own tree, but they know there are free hayrides, activities for kids, a picture spot with Santa. We want people to come out and enjoy it here without stressing out about the cost. We’d like them to start traditions here and make good memories even if they don’t buy anything.”
The Showerses have established great relationships with neighboring farms, and often work together to trade services and goods. One of their closest neighbors brings horses and a carriage and also offers pony rides. During the Christmas season, a hay wagon makes a loop around the farm, and guests can get on or off at any point to select a tree, participate in activities, visit the elk family or petting zoo. Carriage rides travel a path through the apple orchard that gives guests a view of the surrounding landscape.
“Last year, when the fire companies couldn’t host their events, we had them come here to sell food,” said Sonya. “This year we’re going to have a food trailer.” Last season, bell ringers from the Salvation Army set up on the farm because they weren’t allowed in their usual spots, and people gave generously. The Showerses also collected donations for a local food pantry. For a nominal fee, photographers are welcome to bring gear and meet families on the farm for photography sessions, which Sonya said turns out to be good for business because many families who visit for the first time for photos will return for a Christmas tree.
After the Christmas season, there’s a short break, then it’s time to prune the orchards. Realizing they needed something to fill a later winter income gap, three years ago the Showerses added nursery stock. “We had to find something to bridge the income gap between Christmas and early peaches for fresh fruit sales,” said Sonya. “The landscape trees help fill that gap. We always dug trees, but it was by order only.” Sonya said the nursery has done well, especially the hardwoods. Although they don’t do landscape design, they’re happy to plant trees for customers. They’ve also started to grow fruit trees from whips, and the first fruit trees that were established are now being sold.
The Showerses start digging landscaping evergreens in March for both homeowners and landscapers. “We open the nursery right before Mother’s Day, then at the beginning of June we start with early peaches,” said Sonya. “Then fruit goes all summer to the end of October with apples. In between we’re still digging evergreens and juggling the nursery.”
All five of the Showerses children – Blake, Summer, Hailey, Ty and Bree – help on the farm as they’re able to, and Sonya said some of their friends are also employed on the farm. “A lot of teenagers work here around Christmas time,” said Sonya. “We have kids whose parents worked for us when they were in high school, and now their kids come here to work. We’re grateful for good helpers who are willing to pitch in.”