Even if you’ve never been to a Christmas tree farm, you can probably call up a mental picture: a field of shapely evergreens growing in orderly, well-spaced rows. That image wouldn’t be far off for most of the 15,000 or so Christmas tree farms in the U.S., but it’s not at all what you’d see at Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm, located in a speck of a western Massachusetts town called Ashfield. Customers who walk the maze of paths through Pieropan’s hillside balsam grove won’t see a single row of trees. In fact, it might take a good 10 minutes of hiking before they spy a tree with the classic skirted triangle shape—and when they do, they’ll realize that it’s a few feet off the ground, growing off a stump.
Pieorpan Farm’s trees are grown using a land management technique called stump culture, or coppicing—cutting down trees to allow new shoots to form from the stump. Most conventional Christmas tree farms require intensive land management with fertilizers and insecticides, and after a tree is cut down, its stump must be dug out and a new tree replanted. By contrast, Pieropan’s owner, Emmet Van Driesche, doesn’t fertilize, spray or irrigate his trees, most of which were planted decades ago. A single stump can support an older tree and a younger tree at the same time, thereby increasing production. Different plant and tree species commingle with the evergreens, and insects and other animals are more than welcome. “It’s a very rich ecosystem—that’s a big part of its value,” Van Driesche says.
Van Driesche, who sells about 500 trees each year, took over the farm from its original owner, Al Pieropan, almost a decade ago. He believes it to be the oldest continuous operation growing Christmas trees from stump sprouts, and he sees no sign that his stumps are slowing down. “I firmly believe they are like a bonsai tree and have the potential to outlive me,” says Van Driesche whose book about the farm will be published in May.
Although we humans have shaped our woodland habitats with coppicing since prehistoric times, the practice was primarily used for broadleaf trees, not evergreens. Evergreens can’t resprout from the stump if the stump is cut too low, explains Dave Jacke, an ecological landscape designer who is writing a book about the history and ecology of coppicing. But in the 1940s, as Christmas tree farming was taking hold in the U.S., an Ashfield farmer named Linwood Lesure found that if he cut his evergreens a bit above their lowest skirt of branches, let some shoots come up over a year or two, then culled all but one, that shoot would produce a new tree.
Lesure taught the technique to Pieropan, who started his farm in 1955. Much of the land Pieropan bought was too rocky, too steep or too wet to drive a tractor through or sow the land, so stump-grown Christmas trees turned out to be the perfect crop. Peiropan worked as a shop teacher in the Berkshire Mountains, farther west in Massachusetts, where balsam seedlings grew like grass along the side of the road. On his commute home, he would fill a gunny sack with seedlings, then take a shovel out to his hillside pasture and plant them.
Lesure’s Christmas tree star rose quite high. He twice served as president of the Christmas Tree Growers Association of Massachusetts and was named the 1977 National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year by the American Forest Institute. Perhaps he spread the idea of stump culture Christmas tree farming, or perhaps others stumbled upon the same discovery, but for a time, a handful of farms in North America embraced it —particularly on the west coast, because the stumps’ extensive root systems make them less susceptible to drought. Only a few farms still use the practice today, Van Driesche says. As conventional farming became economically viable, the technique was largely forgotten.
Coppicing, more generally, is similarly in decline after playing a role in human civilization worldwide since at least the Neolithic era. The small-diameter wood harvested from coppicing was used for a variety of tasks, such as making tool handles and goods like baskets, building homes and furniture, and burning for fuel. Jacke believes that coppicing could legitimately be called the first form of agriculture in Europe, starting in the Stone Age and continuing well past the Middle Ages. What’s more, he says, charcoal from coppiced European chestnut trees was the first material used to smelt lead and iron into the tools and machines that were eventually built to extract coal from the ground.
“I think you could make a very strong case that without coppice agroforestry, we would have never had the industrial revolution in the 1700s,” he says. “It was the first widely-available form of energy-dense fuel for smelting ore.”
As the industrial revolution took off, large logs became of greater value, and the horsepower to move them emerged. Timber forestry began to replace coppicing as land management goals changed. But the ecological benefits of stump-grown trees suggest the practice is worth revisiting, experts say. For one thing, according to Jacke, recycling recent carbon from young trees that quickly regrow could provide a stabilizing counterbalance to putting ancient carbon into the atmosphere. Researchers at SUNY Syracuse and elsewhere, for example, are investigating whether coppiced poplar and willow trees could be used for biofuel.
By letting sunlight into forest understory, coppicing also promotes greater diversity of plants, insects and reptiles, says Ondrej Vild, a historical ecologist at the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences who studies the transition from ancient to modern land management practices. Promoting the growth of such ecosystems could be vital today, as recent work shows that increased forest biodiversity can help plant life better manage climate change. “It fascinates me because this is a human practice of land management that is beneficial for many organisms,” Vild says.
So when it comes time to choose your next Christmas tree, consider heading to a coppice tree farm, if you can find one. Not only will you be supporting a sustainable form of agriculture that has been used for thousands of years, but you will also experience the magic of wandering through a grove of tangled evergreens to find the tree that calls out to you, sprouting from a stump like a Phoenix reborn.