A Growing Family

A desire to make memories sprouted this business

by Will Lindner

russel_tree1216Janet and David Russell of The Russell Farm in Starksboro have created a Christmas wonderland experience for families.

Traditions flow like the fruits from a cornucopia in Vermont, in the days leading up to Christmas. Families unpack their ornaments for the tree, for the table, for the mantel; plan their meals; work out which relatives are visiting whom; do their gift shopping; and send out their greeting cards.

For lots of families in Vermont, from Canada, and from neighboring states, there’s another tradition: gathering their children and grandchildren for the annual trek to The Russell Farm on Vermont 116 in Starksboro, to select and cut their own Christmas trees.

It’s not just the act of choosing and harvesting a tree that makes the Russell experience exceptional and worth repeating. (Some families have repeated the ritual for 30 years or more.) It’s the activities that go with it: riding in a horse-drawn sled or wagon up the long hill behind the farmhouse, past the sugarhouse, and into a grove where the trees — balsam and Fraser firs, intermingled — are growing; venturing into the snow among them, saw in hand (provided by the staff) to find the right tree; and then, while the tree is transported down to the farmyard where it’s netted and awaits its new owner, adjourning to a cozy wood-frame cabin where a warm fire and a table spread with snacks and hot chocolate take the chill off. That’s the finishing touch that imbues the entire experience with a neighborliness and holiday spirit that rings of an older, more pastoral and languorous Vermont.

“I think we’ve lost a lot of the old traditions,” says David Russell, 68. He knows that other tree farms provide the opportunity for families to cut their own trees, but believes it’s the horses clopping through the snow with their harness bells shaking, and now the cabin, too, that bring people back to Starksboro year after year.

“What will your kids remember 10 years from now?” he asks. “We’re trying to make memories here, and I think that’s important.”

Debera Blakeslee, also of Starksboro, has known the Russells for 35 years. Their families used to attend the same church, her son milked cows at the farm when he was growing up and the Russell Farm was primarily a dairy, and she sometimes helped out in the summertime, trimming the tops and mowing between the trees.

“I would go up there with my dogs,” she recalls. “There would be spider webs going from one tree to another with beads of dew along them. It was beautiful.” Three generations of her family have cut and purchased their Christmas trees there.

“They do whatever they can to help families create something they can cherish for a long time,” Blakeslee says. “Whatever they do, it’s for somebody.”

Choosing farming as a way of life, though, was something Russell did for himself. A summer job that he held while a student at Vermont Technical College, working on a bridge construction for Vermont’s new Interstate system, “made me quite contented, on a foggy morning, to just have to walk over to the barn.”

Still, going into farming was a choice that surprised even him. “When I got out of high school,” he recalls, “the only thing I was sure of was that I was not going to be a farmer.”

He knew well what he was rejecting, for his parents, Howard and Phyllis Russell, had raised David and his six siblings milking cows in Hinesburg.

His first major at VTC was instrumentation, which combines mechanical and electrical training. Then he changed to civil engineering. His resolve to avoid farming crumbled when he fell in love with a Starksboro farm girl — Janet Besaw, whom he had known in high school, and his wife, now, of 47 years. He became an agriculture major, graduated in 1969, and he and Janet promptly got married and moved in with her parents. It was the house she was born in, and the couple’s home to this day.

“There are two apartments in the house,” says Russell, sitting at the kitchen table. “We lived with our kids in that part” — he points to a hallway beyond the kitchen — and Grandma and Grandpa lived over here. Now Amy our daughter, and her husband and their kids live over there, and Grandma and Grandpa” — a smiling reference to himself and Janet — “still live over here.”

Russell bought his father-in-law’s bred heifers and started building up his herd. “Did the milking and everything by hand,” he says. “When you’re 21 you don’t think anything of it.”

In 1980 he built a new barn and purchased his father’s Holsteins when the elder Russell retired. This brought his herd up to 75 cows. And while he envisioned himself remaining a dairy farmer — Russell was not attracted to the 1986 Whole Herd Buyout program, sponsored by Vermont’s U.S. Senator James Jeffords — he had already begun to diversify, planting his first fir trees in the early 1970s. A decade later, with the first crop maturing, they began selling Christmas trees.

“The trees provided about 2 percent of our gross income,” Russell says. “My goal was to be able to pay our taxes with the Christmas tree money.”

He also admits to a less practical reason for starting the tree business: “It was an excuse to have a team of horses,” he says. “I grew up around them and enjoyed working with horses.”

Bib and Bob, a pair of weanling colts from Canada, were the first team. They put in about 20 years, not only pulling sleds and wagons of holiday tree-cutters up and down the slopes but also hauling out the lumber that Russell and his helpers cut and used in 1989 to construct the cabin where visitors come in out of the cold before riding down to claim their trees and head home. Other times of the year the Russells lend out the cabin, perfectly situated beside a pond, to youth groups.

Bib and Bob were replaced by Ely and Emitt, and Korina and Jackson. A part-time assistant contributes his pair, so with three teams available, the Russells minimize their customers’ waiting times on the busy weekends. “We keep things moving and keep in touch with walky-talkies,” says Russell.

The Russells are now out of the dairy business, having sold the herd five years ago. But while Christmas tree sales are seasonal, the business requires year-round attention: planting some 1,000 trees each spring to replace those that were sold the previous December, shaping the trees as they mature, and maintaining the landscape that hosts them.

They own 300 acres contiguous to the farmhouse property — the location of the cabin and several thousand trees. Another 60 acres down the road has about 10 percent planted in firs.

They have developed a maple syrup operation with an associate who taps 2,400 trees on their property, adding another product for customers who come to harvest their Christmas trees. Russell says he’s thinking about developing an orchard, and perhaps opening a petting zoo. With a blind horse (Cody) and a female goat (Sophia) who are inseparable companions, it seems a natural. “In the fall,” he says, “people are looking for a nice place to go.”

The Christmas tree farm opens on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after Thanksgiving weekend, and Saturdays and Sundays thereafter through the season. Weekday visits require an appointment.

The Russells have been an inspiration for Judy Meyncke of North Ferrisburgh, for whom they are mentors as she eagerly adapts to living in Vermont. Meyncke chips in as a greeter during the Christmas tree season.

“They’re so humble,” she says of the Russells. “I’m from New Jersey, and we’re very outgoing. Outside of Christmas, I help with the sugaring, and I’ve helped with the haying, which is a humbling experience — a lot of work.

“Dave is passionate about the outdoors,” she continues. “You get the sense that working outdoors brings a lot of peace to him. Janet keeps the books, and they do all this without any technology except their website. She’s a very savvy woman. David and Janet are special, because they have integrity, they’re honest, they’re giving, and they’re fun. It’s like going back in time, being with them.”

Travel has always been important to the Russells, which David acknowledges is unusual for farm families. “Especially in the old days, farmers didn’t go anywhere because they thought no one else could milk their cows.” But they rely upon, and contribute to, a very close-knit church community. In fact, their son-in-law Scott Mansfield on the other side of their kitchen doorway, is their church’s pastor.

If any traveling is to be done at this time of year, though, it will be their daughters’ coming home to help out with the bustling tree business. Besides Amy and Scott with their three children, the Russells have a daughter Lisa, who lives with her family in Connecticut, and Meg, who is married and lives in Las Vegas. Both feel the pull of the family’s December enterprise, and certainly of their Vermont homeplace, which so richly conveys the tidings of the season. •