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Christmas trees - business and pleasure. Connecticut farmer prefers nurturing fir, pine, and spruce to tending a dairy herd

PHILIP Jones says he has always liked planting trees - evergreen trees, to be precise. So now, when the December winds sweep across this former dairy farm, it's the fresh aroma of newly cut spruce trees rather than the odor of a dairy barn that permeates the homestead.

Philip and Elisabeth Jones own the largest Christmas-tree farm in Connecticut - 150 acres of fir, pine, and spruce. Every year thousands of families - each in search of the ''perfect'' tree - come to traipse through row after row of trees that grow on the hills here.

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''It's rare, rare, rare for them (families) to jump right out of the car and pick their tree. There's a certain psychology about ranging out,'' Mr. Jones explains. ''They want to go look at 15,000 trees before they cut one.''

The farm, situated at the foot of the Berkshires in southwestern Connecticut, is one of about 400 tree farms in the state. Of these, six growers ship their trees to the Providence, R.I., market; the rest have farms where customers come to cut their own trees, he says.

The ''choose-and-cut concept'' has become more popular in recent years, says Mr. Jones, who first harvested a crop of a dozen trees in 1947. ''It's the old tradition to take your family and go out to cut your tree - just as you pick your own apples, your own strawberries, your own pumpkins.''

Citing a chapter in John Naisbitt's book, ''Megatrends,'' Mrs. Jones adds: ''It seems that the more you have buttons to push, the more you want to get back to nature.''

These are the busiest days of the year for the Joneses, whose livelihood depends on tree sales during the five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mrs. Jones is baking brownies and cookies, sheetpan after sheetpan, for the farm's snack bar. (Last year, she says, she made 13,000 treats for customers.) Her husband has hired extra help to assist the thousands of people who are expected to flock to the farm this month. And in the weathered-red barn - which is still standing although the last cows disappeared from the farm in 1967 - women are shaping branches into holiday wreaths for sale.

This is the payoff for another year of hard work.

All of the 25,000 trees ''in production'' here have been grown from seed, Jones says, adding that it takes a tree between 10 and 15 years to grow six feet. After planting, the tiny trees must be watered, weeded, and protected from birds for two years.

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To prevent customers from trampling on them, Jones has posted signs near their beds: ''These are babes in the woods. Please don't step on the baby trees.''

Then the trees are transplanted to ''line-out beds,'' fertilized, and sprayed for insects, before being moved into the field two years later, he says. And the trees must also be sheared each summer to make them symmetrical and bushy.

Despite all the work, and although three generations of his family were in the dairy business, Jones says he would much rather grow trees than milk cows.

Because the dairy business relies heavily on federal price supports, he explains, ''the government tells you how much you can sell it (milk) for and to whom you can sell it. . . . In a way, dairymen are victims of their own efficiency.''

Christmas-tree industry officials say most of the farms in the three southern New England states are choose-and-cut operations like the Jones Christmas Tree Farm. H. Peter Wood, a grower and the director of the Massachusetts Christmas Tree Association, estimates that there are as many as 250 tree farms in Massachusetts and up to a dozen in Rhode Island.

Although farmers and government officials say the Christmas-tree industry is growing in southern New England, local farmers don't produce enough trees to meet local demand. Mr. Wood estimates that tree farmers in Massachusetts grow 15 to 20 percent of the trees sold in the state each Christmas. The rest of the trees are imported from northern New England and Canada, he says.

The $3 million Christmas-tree business in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire operates very differently from that to the south. Indeed, northern growers finish their harvest season by Thanksgiving week - before most of their southern neighbors have felled the first tree.

Only a small percentage of the 411,963 trees harvested last year in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire were sold in-state, says Philip Grime, executive secretary of the New Hampshire-Vermont Christmas Tree Association. Most are trucked to wholesalers or retailers in the populous corridor between Washington and Boston.

Fred Ewen, owner of The Growers' Market garden center in Cambridge, Mass., is one of many Christmas-tree retailers who travels to the north each year to handpick the trees he will sell in December. This year, he says, he made 20 trips to find the best growers and the best trees.

Why so selective?

Customers are looking for ''the perfect tree,'' Mr. Ewen explains. ''They want the tree right off the Christmas card.''

To comply with consumer demand, farmers about 15 years ago began growing trees on plantations and shearing them annually to make them fuller. Now, Mr. Grime says, most trees come from plantations. ''People don't want a hatrack type of tree, but a dense tree.''

New Englanders are also partial to certain kinds of trees. ''The balsam fir is king,'' says Ted Howard, a professor of forestry economics at the University of New Hampshire. Growers say the balsam, which is native to northern New England, keeps its needles longer and has a sweeter smell than other trees.

Nationwide, the Scotch pine - grown primarily in the Midwest - tops the popularity list, followed by Douglas fir and balsam fir, says Jane Svinicki, associate executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, based in Milwaukee.

She says there will be slightly more trees on the market this year, about 32 million, and that the average price is $20 for a six- to seven-foot tree.

Christmas-tree prices in recent years have kept pace with inflation. However, in three to five years there is expected to be a nationwide surplus of trees and a corresponding downward pressure on prices, says Dr. Howard, who is just finishing a study of the industry in New England. ''With a lot of people getting into the business, with a lot of people who are already in it planning to expand , and with the Canadian commitment to tree-growing, well, there are likely to be a lot of trees to choose from,'' he explains.

Canadian-grown trees take a major portion of the New England market, although not as much as they did 30 years ago.

When American growers introduced shearing and plantation farming, they knocked Canada's ''wild'' trees out of the market during the mid-70s, Howard says. Now, however, Canadian growers are following the Americans' lead, he adds. ''There's one grower in eastern Quebec whose production exceeds that of the entire state of New Hampshire.''

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