Environment

Meet the Eco-Conscious Farmers Behind Beloved Holiday Treats and Decorations

From sustainably-harvested trees to 'obsession-worthy' organic eggnog, there’s a farmer behind the hallmarks of the holidays.

Photo Credit: Facebook

Should no one be on-site at the Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm when you stop to select your tree, it’s fine to leave $25 in the box by the You-Cut Hut. Personal checks are fine. Consider this as close to stepping into the pages of Little House in the Big Woods a family can get, and a moving reminder about how to pare down this holiday season. 

The Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm has grown trees in the stump culture method in the hilltown of Ashfield, Massachusetts, since the 1950s, when Al Pieropan learned the sustainable practice. Rather than cut the tree close to the ground, yank the stump, and plant a new seedling, trees are hand sawed, leaving two to three feet of stump with a skirt of branches. Trees continue to sprout from the mother stump. There’s no plowing, cover crop, herbicides, or pesticides. Those in search of a tree wander a wooded grove, explaining why the farm endures as a beloved local holiday destination; some customers have been coming for 40 years.

“Families establish these traditions, and you can see it happening as it takes place,” said Emmet Van Driesche, who, along with his wife, Cecilia, and two pint-size “hooligans” took over the management of the farm in 2010. “We want customers to feel continuity, to evoke the sense of a 50-year tradition. I think about that a lot when I have to make a big decision about the farm.” 

The grove is managed by hand, with Van Driesche pruning throughout the year, and trees are hauled out on foot by way of brushy trails cleared with loppers and a scythe. What the Pieropan operation lacks in large-scale efficiency it makes up for with almost no overhead costs. Hence the $25 price tag, a song for a Christmas tree—and as it should be, according to Van Driesche.

“Christmas shouldn’t cost much, and the holidays should be about the time you spend with your family, not the things you buy,” he said.

Farmers like the Van Dreisches, who focus on simplicity and sustainability, provide an alternative, not just to conventional trees but to the seasonal spirit of Christmas consumerism. Last year, 127 million shoppers logged on to shop during Cyber Monday, and the retail industry generated over $3 trillion in sales during the season. This year, each list-wielding Santa’s helper expects to spend almost $900 on gifts, according to the American Research Group

The challenge of living an uncluttered life is a modern one, said Roots Flower Farm owner Michelle Elston. Her Christmas wreaths of winterberry, pussy willow, and feathery greens; twiggy red curly willow and blueberry; and pale grains of sorghum and rye are the products of her efforts on her Carlisle, Pennsylvania, cut flower farm. 

“We only use local product. That makes you forced to look at things differently, especially this time of year. You’re forced to find beauty,” she said. Winter’s simplified palette, she said, is beautiful.” That’s why people are drawn to what we’re doing. There’s no glitter or spray paint or imports that have traveled thousands of miles. It’s more real.” 

Her business has thrived from sales within a 50-mile radius, despite initial concerns she would have to travel to Philadelphia farmers markets to peddle her flowers, and her philosophy of simplicity in work, family, and play is as integral to her business as are larkspur and mountain mint. 

“I like to keep it simple,” she said. “It makes so much more sense. People are craving real stuff, a connection to nature, to real things—not plastic and not fake.” 

It’s the kind of vision worth toasting during the holiday season. Pour the local eggnog, whether from the pasture-raised cows at Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook, Maine, or the organic Straus Family Creamery in Marshall, California, whose eggnog Serious Eats called “obsession-worthy.” 

Luckily, the popular embrace for moderation in all things has improved since 1996, when eggnog sales were down 10 percent, promptingThe New York Times’ Florence Fabricant to ask if there was still a place on “today’s postmodern Christmas table” for eggnog. “Some people would no sooner toast the season with eggnog than order a double cheeseburger, rare, with fries,” she wrote, suggesting a rather delicious Christmas dinner. 

“If you’ve never had eggnog, it just says Christmas,” said Warren Knight, who runs the 500-acre Smiling Hill Farm outside of Portland. “It just says family.”

But in the true spirit of the season—and an adaptation of junk store needlepoint—the best eggnog, like happiness itself, is homemade.

Rich Eggnog

From The New York Times

3 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups whole or lowfat milk

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, plus additional for garnish

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup dark rum or bourbon

1/4 cup brandy

1 cup heavy cream, softly whipped

Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a heavy saucepan until well blended. Whisk in the milk. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens and steam starts rising. The mixture should register 140 degrees on an instant-read or candy thermometer.

Strain into a bowl. Stir in the nutmeg, vanilla, rum or bourbon, and brandy. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, about two hours.

Fold in the whipped cream and serve, sprinkled with a little nutmeg, or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appetit and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn.

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