When Shelly Tomlinson was growing up near Albany, NY, trudging through the snow to cut down a Christmas tree with family was a favorite annual event. And she’s now carrying on that tradition with her own family and close friends in western Loudoun. The county’s booming cut-your-own Christmas tree scene has made it pretty easy, with farms right in her backyard.
“It’s just tradition,” Tomlinson said. “We’re lucky—there are so many tree farms around here so it’s convenient.”
For the past 15 years, Tomlinson, her husband, Andy, their friends Michelle and Dustin Sclater and their children have hit an area tree farm. Their location of choice is usually Milltown Creek Tree Farms near their home in Lovettsville, but they’ve also explored other farms around the region.
And while Loudoun cut-your-own farms offer a wide range of varieties, Tomlinson is usually on the hunt for the perfect blue spruce.
“They’re pretty and they smell great,” she said. But there’s also some family history in the choice: her German grandfather had a nursery in New York and blue spruce was his specialty.
With two families and five kids total, it’s not a picture-perfect experience every year, Tomlinson said, but it’s always worthwhile. The memories and photo ops are priceless: the families have photos of two, then four and then five kids on the back of their truck going back 15 years. And it’s a family bonding experience that is even more priceless as their kids have entered the teen years.
“It would be a lot cheaper to go somewhere else, but we’d miss the tradition part. And the kids love it,” Tomlinson said. “They still get into it—they still love all that traditional stuff, and they still like to hang out with us.”
Cut-your-own trees are a growing sector in Loudoun’s agritourism economy, and Loudoun Farms’ Holidays in Loudoun Valleys campaign, organized by the county’s economic development office, kicked off last weekend.
According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture, there are at least 16 tree farmers in Loudoun. This year’s campaign spotlights a dozen of those farms along with area farms, farmers markets and artisan studios where visitors can pick up products for holiday giving, and the idea is to encourage visitors to make a day of it with family and friends in addition to finding the perfect tree.
“It truly becomes more of an experience for the families who are visiting the farms this season,” said Vanessa Wagner, interim rural development officer for Loudoun County Economic Development. “The trend is opening up to being more than just cut your own but having it be that whole event. A lot of the venues are pet-friendly, they’re offering artisanal products in addition to the trees.”
Many farms offer more than just trees, with warm drinks and snacks, hayrides, gift shops and other bonuses. A number of local agro-businesses are also listed on the holiday tour, so as visitors head to western Loudoun to pick a tree, they can make stops for local gifts from soaps to lavender products to handmade furniture.
“This is a perfect way to support Loudoun small businesses in western Loudoun. Come out and get your tree, get gifts for people as well as supporting the farms,” said Lois Kirkpatrick, marketing and communications manager for Loudoun Economic Development.
And while Black Friday is a big day, with up to 30 percent of the season’s sales, the peak is actually the first weekend in December, Kirkpatrick said, with strong sales the second weekend in December, too. The county’s most recent data from 2013 showed 200,000 trees available for sale in Loudoun, Kirkpatrick said. And that number may have grown with new farms opening for business.
One of the new additions to this year’s holiday tour is Between the Hills Farm near Hillsboro. After planting Norway and blue spruce seven years ago, Abby and Mark Mendes opened their farm for business last year.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘well, they’re getting pretty big. It’s probably time to start selling trees’,” Abby Mendes said with a laugh.
Now in their second year of operation, the Mendeses are able to offer extra large trees, up to 12 feet, for folks with big foyers. And while this summer’s heavy rains weren’t ideal for some agricultural businesses, they’ve been a blessing for tree growers.
“I think they really liked the rainy summer,” Mendes said. “We’d come up the driveway and everything was really beautiful and lush in the summertime. It was definitely a plus for us.”
Between the Hills offers cider, hot chocolate, and cookies in the barn Mark Mendes built himself, along with a decorated tree for photos. This year, guests can also book a 30-minute session with a local photographer to help capture the day.
The farm is located along Harper’s Ferry Road, which takes visitors from historic Hillsboro to Harper’s Ferry, and there are several vineyards on the route, so it’s easy to make a day of it. Mendes says that in their first year, they got a mix of visitors who happened to catch signs on Rt. 9 or Harper’s Ferry Road and folks who heard about the farm via social media buzz. This year, they’re looking forward to their first crop of return customers along with new faces.
“There’s always those first few years in business where you’re establishing yourself and putting yourself on the map,” she said. “We had a lot of people who were excited to come back again.”
For more information on Holidays in Loudoun Valleys and a map of participating tree farms and places to buy handmade gifts, go to loudounfarms.org/holidaytrees.
Between the Hills Farm is located at 12898 Sagle Road, Purcellville, north of Hillsboro. To learn more, go to betweenthehillsfarm.com.