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Christmas tree growing a family business for Exeter farmers

December 11, 2010

EXETER – The Clark and Case families, who were searching together for the perfect Christmas tree, found it in only 10 minutes – a record – and it was a beauty.
Perfectly formed into a point that was just the right height, it was full, round and cone-shaped without a single bare spot. Just what the doctor – or Santa – ordered.
Tim Case earned credit for spotting the balsam fir and his friend, Shane Clark, gave it final approval because, he said, “I’m very picky.”
It has become a tradition for Clark and his family – wife Dori, son Chaz and daughter Karissa and their pals, Case and his daughter Lily – to head out to ShanBri Farms on South County Trail, to choose a live tree. This year Chaz, armed with a small saw, had the honor of cutting the winner.
There are at least six Christmas trees farms, probably more, in a small area of town. If you had a slingshot and stood in front of Schartner’s, you might have a decent chance of hitting most of them with a rock.
Dan and Katie Patterson, who own ShanBri, near the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery, were delighted to show off their property which includes a charming gift shop and antiques emporium and acreage boasting six varieties of pine, greenhouses where they grow perennials and a batch of critters including a pair of horses, cattle, chickens and two dogs.
“We started growing trees in 1996,” said Dan. “I planted 1,000 trees before we even closed on the place. Katie’s the boss; I’m the grower.”
They have 50 acres, not all planted, and in 2001 sold their first trees, two types of spruce – white and blue. Today they also grow Fraser firs, Norway, white and blue spruce, balsam and white pines. “We sell out of balsam every year,” noted Dan.
Their customer base is wide-ranging. Besides the locals, they have a lot of shoppers from Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown, Warwick, Cranston and even Massachusetts.
According to Dan, the competition among the growers is friendly.
“We all know each other,” he said. “We have coffee together. We’re not enemies.”
Starting last weekend, the hunt was on in earnest, with people buzzing up and down the roadways with Christmas trees tied to their roof racks. It will only intensify.
“We’ll still be selling up to Christmas Eve,” Dan said. “One time we had ice and snow and I had to put a tree in my truck and take it to a guy in the driveway.”
ShanBri sells between 150 and 200 trees a season has 15,000, in various stages of maturity, growing. The farm also offers wreaths and seasonal arrangements.
Just up the road, at Shop and Chop Tree Farm, the numbers are a little bigger.
“We sell around 800 to 1,000 trees a year,” said Joel Littlefield, third generation in the tree business. His grandparents founded Hemsley’s Tree Farm on South County Trail, near the intersection of Ten Rod Road, and his folks, Nate and Judy Littlefield, started their business just south of Schartner’s.
The Littlefields planted trees in 1980 and sold their first batch eight years later. They have eight acres planted in Fraser firs, white and blue spruce.
“The Frasers are probably the most popular; they have a soft needle,” said Joel, who received a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and turf from the University of Rhode Island and is studying for a master’s in wetlands and soils.
“We have people who have been coming here a long time. They start as young couples. If you come as a young couple and enjoy it, there’s no need to go anywhere else.”
The worst thing that can happen to Christmas tree growers in December, he added, is rain on weekends. Otherwise, Shop and Chop is busy every weekend. “It’s a family thing,” said Joel.
Up the road, his mother, Judy Hemsley Littlefield, is doing a brisk business in wreaths, swags, boxwood centerpieces and an array of wooden ornaments that she cuts and hand-paints. Her mother, Betty Hemsley, 90, is usually in the thick of things, helping make bows. This year she’s in a nursing home undergoing rehab after breaking her hip.
The idleness, Judy said, is driving her mom nuts. “She was mowing the lawn just before she broke her hip. She’s used to getting up, making the bed, getting dressed and fixing her breakfast. Now she’s just sitting.”
Judy has no time for sitting. Even on a weekday, a steady stream of customers drove down the long dirt road, admiring wreaths hanging on the side of the barn, then going on to the gift shop to make difficult decisions among a host of clever ornaments.
Besides animals, snowmen, hearts and virtually every bird imaginable, there are embroidered snowflakes embellished with Swarovski crystals.
Judy fondly recalled early days at the farm.
“I grew up here. I started working as soon as I could cut a tree down. We used to plant in the woods and people would trudge through deep snow pulling sleds to bring back their Christmas trees.
“It was a real Normal Rockwell picture.”

Martha Smith is a freelance writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.

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