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Christmas tree farm is family tradition

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UNION BRIDGE, Md. - Retail experts call the growing popularity of cut-your-own Christmas trees "consumer engagement," but Michael Ryan, owner and operator of Clemsonville Christmas tree farm in Union Bridge, calls it "part of a fun-filled memorable experience."

An increase in the popularity of artificial trees over live trees several decades ago has leveled off in recent years, and Ryan said interest in live trees "is creeping back."

Ryan, a native of New York, spent several childhood Christmas seasons selling trees on a corner lot. He attended Catholic University in Washington.

After graduation, he worked as a school furniture sales representative. In 1965, he purchased a manor house built in 1706 by John Clemson that was modeled after George Washington's Mount Vernon home and situated on 250 acres of land.

Several years after planting his first trees, the Christmas tree business was launched. "This started out as a small little venture and each year we kept adding and adding to it until it is what we have now," he said.

Ryan explained that the business "started as a family thing because I have always been a family-type man."

The farm - which Ryan operates with his wife, Mary - is now seeing the second generation of Ryans providing a fun family experience. Ryan's three sons - Paul, Tom and Mike - work weekends at the farm.

"This is a great opportunity for families to come out, spend time together and enjoy themselves," Mike said. "The trees are easy to cut down and easy to get on the car."

The elder Ryan estimates that between 60 and 70 percent of his business comes from repeat customers. Mike noted that the first two full weekends of December are the farm's busiest sales days.

Among the repeat customers are Jim Lucey and his wife, Noreen, parishioners at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg. This year marked the 39th time the Luceys, members of their families and friends have made the annual trek to the Clemsonville tree farm.

"It's just a fun thing. He (Ryan) is a very nice guy. We've seen his kids grow up and he has watched my kids grow up," Lucey said.

A former Secret Service agent who is now head of security at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Lucey said that "we look forward to this adventure every year. It has become a tradition."

The farm is sustainable - planting three seedlings for every tree that is cut. This year, Ryan expects to plant 7,000 seedlings. Most are ready for harvest about seven years after they are planted.

All trees at the Clemsonville Christmas tree farm - from the smallest table-top tree to 14-foot towering pines - cost $20.

Visitors are provided with saws and other equipment to chop down their tree. They have free range of the growing fields as they search for the perfect tree. Coming back to the homestead, visitors get help securing their trees to the car and they also are treated to cider and cookies.

Szczepanowski is a staff writer at the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015