Oh, Christmas Tree!

Heritage Farms and the Business of Tradition

Carol Haramis sits in the rustic farmhouse kitchen of her childhood home and reflects on the day when she had the revelation.

“I remember thinking how much I hated being in an office on a nice day. Later, when I went home, as I made my way up the driveway, I looked around our property and I thought to myself ‘I don’t want to leave this.’” Carol asked her father to teach her what he knew about running a tree farm.

Carol’s family roots in the Village of Peninsula run deep. Heritage Farms was founded in 1848 by Carol’s great-great-uncle, Lawson Waterman. A self-made man, he established a successful canal boat-building operation along the Cuyahoga River and later purchased the nearby sandstone quarry that is now Deep Lock Quarry Metro Park. From the front porch of the hilltop family home he built in 1852, the same home that Carol and her husband share today, Lawson would use his spyglass to keep watch over his businesses.

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Robert Bishop, Carol’s father and Lawson’s nephew, is credited with starting the tree business in 1955. He was delighted by Carol’s interest, relieved that the farm would stay in the family for another generation. Carol and her husband, Kim, took over the day-to-day business of Heritage Farms in 2009, presiding over the family’s burgeoning Christmas tree enterprise.

Earlier generations farmed crops and raised dairy and beef cattle and sheep. Occasionally, some of the land was leased to sharecroppers. For a time, Heritage Farms was known for its vast selection of rare and unusual daylilies. “Every generation added something or tried something new. We’ve reinvented ourselves every 10 years or so,” Carol says.

These days, the farm is the site of the Peninsula Flea and other popular family events, including Fairy Days in the summer and Pumpkin Pandemonium leading up to Halloween. Carol and Kim saw opportunity in the increased popularity of nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park and added some primitive campsites and a few Scandinavian-style raised shelters that have housed campers and backpackers from across the world.

This willingness to adapt and change is one of the secrets to the farm’s longevity. But more than anything else, Carol and Kim focus most of their energy into the mad dash from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, which can make or break a year of careful planning and hard work.


The Perfect Tree

We all know it’s not just about the tree. Anyone who has made the effort to bundle up children and traipse around a tree farm in the bitter cold understands there are easier ways to conjure up some Christmas spirit. Perhaps there’s just something about the tradition that connects us to a simpler time. Cue a well-timed snowfall and the experience of cutting your own tree at Heritage Farms is nothing short of magical. They’re selling an experience and setting the stage for priceless memories.

Carol knows it can be tempting to pick up a less expensive Christmas tree at a big-box or chain store, but she cautions that those trees were probably cut in October.

Buying directly from a local Christmas tree grower, especially if you cut your own, means you are going to get a fresh product that will drop fewer needles and last longer. Even the pre-cut trees available at Heritage Farms are only a few days old; Carol knows the cut date of each and every one.

The secret to a healthy tree is actually pretty simple, Kim says. A tree that has been cut will form a sap plug within a few hours. “A tree draws its water between the bark and the wood—the cambium layer. You need to make a fresh cut in the stump before you put it into your stand and into the water, or the tree will be unable to drink,” Kim explains. Monitoring the water levels is key because a cut tree can drink a quart of water for each diameter inch of stem. He cautions against using old-fashioned lights that can run too hot and cause the tree to dry out, and he does not recommend using tree preservative products.

Customers are asked to abide by a few rules that are critical to the farm’s planning and profitability. “People don’t always understand that we are a small farm, so there are limited quantities of things,” Carol says. So, no, there are no more trees “in the back,” and people can’t always cut what they want. Trees are carefully counted and tagged for sale earlier in the year. That kind of discipline ensures that 169 years of a family livelihood will continue—a place that employs local high school students, funds a scholarship at the Peninsula High School, and supports several local nonprofit organizations.

They plant 3,000–5,000 trees annually on 26 working acres, with some trees taking as long as 15 years to be ready to sell. Heritage Farms grow Blue Spruce, Black Hills Spruce, and White and Scotch pines. Fraser Firs, while popular, don’t grow as well here, and deer are especially fond of them. Carol brings in precut Fraser Firs from Ohio and Michigan farms to satisfy the demand. Spruces have short, sturdy branches that can handle the weight of any ornament. White pines have softer branches and a wispy needle that require lighter ornaments.

“The Blue Spruces this year are absolutely gorgeous,” she says, attributing this to Thad Walters, her farm manager, and a really wet spring. Last year’s 17-year cicada invasion was helpful, too. The thousands of bugs broke up the soil as they emerged from the ground, which naturally helped the irrigation process.

2018 will mark the 170th anniversary for Heritage Farms. Carol is quite satisfied with the path she’s chosen—working alongside her husband, a few farm dogs and cats, and a small, loyal staff that is very much a part of her family.

“We’re never going to fully retire from the farm. I’ll be here during pumpkin season. I’ll be here during Christmas season.” She laughs and says, “but I may not be here all summer though.”

And, yes, Carol and Kim do put up a Christmas tree—several actually. Carol says she always picks hers from the very first batch that arrives.

Heritage Farms, located at 6050 Riverview Road in Peninsula, opened the Saturday before Thanksgiving and will be open seven days a week until they sell out or until Christmas Eve.