Plant trees and they will come.
Rick and Anna Geissler feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work at something they love.
“It's the aroma of the pines and seeing the fields of beautiful trees,” Anna said.
Rick and Anna's farm, Geissler Tree Farms Inc. of Ontelaunee Township, was named the Berks County Outstanding Farm Family of the Year, a contest sponsored by the Reading Fair.
Winners are chosen from the county's granges and are judged on community involvement. The Geisslers received the honor at a ceremony Aug. 9 at the Reading Fairgrounds. It comes with a $1,200 cash prize.
It's the first time in the fair's history that a tree farm has been honored, said Steve Mohn, who helps run the contest for the Reading Fair.
“I enjoy this business, and I must enjoy it because I just bought more acreage,” said Rick Geissler, 62. “Getting 'farm family of the year' is an honor; there's no doubt about it. It's the first non-conventional winner, and that makes it unique.”
Anna Geissler, 59, is the office manager for the farm. A registered nurse, she gave up nursing to help with the family business.
“I'm certainly proud of my husband,” Anna Geissler said. “It's great that this honor is going to a non-traditional farm because people don't look at it as a real agri-business, but it is.”
The Geisslers are donating half of their $1,200 prize to the Ontelaunee Junior Grange, and half to the Berks County 4-H.
The couple has three daughters: Kelly teaches at Berks Career and Technology Center East Campus; Kate teaches at Schuylkill Valley High School; and Courtnie is a partner with Good Life Financial.
Son-in-law Justin Nein runs the landscaping division and is the project estimator for the business.
Geissler has been growing and selling trees for 40 years on 200 acres, and has about 25 employees, but the business' roots go back to the Depression, when Geissler's grandfather, Earl Ruppert, started selling Christmas trees from his home on Front Street.
Later, Geissler's parents, Ruth and Russell Geissler, also sold Christmas trees after Russell returned from the Army.
“My dad's best story is that he was a cook in the Army and Gen. (George) Patton came through his chow line one day,” Geissler said.
Russell Geissler served with the Army in France during World War II.
“They both enjoyed selling Christmas trees, so in 1955, they moved to Schuylkill County and had a tree farm there,” Geissler said.
Later his parents combined their talents into a campground, called the Christmas Pine Campground in Auburn.
“I took over the Christmas tree operation at that time, and started selling trees when I was 17 or 18,” Geissler said.
Geissler attended Penn State for ornamental nursery management, and after college, purchased a cornfield in Bern Township and began growing trees.
The Geisslers have been branching out; they recently purchased another 45 acres.
While Christmas trees hold a special place in the Geisslers' hearts, the family has many varieties of trees for sale.
“We are a complete nursery,” Geissler said. “We have about 40 varieties of trees; we do shade trees, flowering trees, evergreens, Christmas trees, some container trees, and we have a full-service landscaping service.”
They also sell trees wholesale in New England and in larger cities up and down the East Coast.
“Working with trees, we have a lot of manual labor,” Geissler said. “Conventional farming, at this point, is more mechanized than we are; there's a lot of mowing, spraying, cutting and shaping.”
The Geissler family's farm in Penn Township is where most of their Christmas trees are grown.
Going to Geissler Tree Farms for your Christmas tree has become a tradition with many people, especially since the Geisslers offer horse-drawn carriage rides for the “choose and cut” customers during the three weekends before Christmas, starting with Black Friday.
“The five-week window around Christmas is our busiest time of the year,” Anna said. “We open a small gift shop and have wreaths, swags and decorated logs for sale. It's a lot of work, but we enjoy it.”
Geissler is proud of his product and of the part his family plays in the Christmas traditions of many families.
“Every tree we sell at Christmas is grown on our farm; we don't bring anything in,” he said. “We're one of the few who grow our own Fraser firs.”
The Fraser, Douglas and concolor firs make the best Christmas trees, he said, explaining that the softer-branched pines don't hold ornaments as well.
Still, the artificial tree market is larger than the demand for live trees, Geissler said.
“People who want a real tree like the tradition, they like the aroma, and they like the idea of something real, not something made in China that's plastic,” Geissler said.
The cost of all Christmas trees is $10 per foot.
Trees for Troops
For the past 12 years, the Geissler family has participated in Trees For Troops, a part of the nationwide Christmas Spirit Foundation. With help from donations, the Geisslers send Christmas trees to families of deployed military members. Each year, the family sends 200 to 300 trees to soldiers' families living on military bases across the country.
“That's very important to us because we have great respect for our troops,” Anna Geissler said.
But Rick Geissler has concern for aspiring tree farmers.
“Young people can't get into it; it takes too much money to buy the land and the trees,” Geissler said. “You buy a piece of land and plant trees and then wait for six to eight years after your outlay of money before anything starts paying, and most people can't do that.”
Shade trees can be ready for sale from three to six years, he said.
“With Christmas trees, they grow six to 10 years before being cut; that's a long way to payday,” Geissler said. “Right now there's a shortage of Christmas trees because for a while, there was a glut and the price of trees went down, so people got out of the business and now it's too expensive to get back in.”