Sun | Jan 24, 2021

Christmas tree farming a family affair

Published:Monday | December 2, 2019 | 12:00 AMPaul Clarke/Gleaner Writer
Alex Smith (left) and Rudolph Watson, Christmas tree farmers in Penlyne Castle, St Thomas.
Berchel ‘Jah B’ Smith, farmer and guest house operator in Penlyne Castle, St Thomas.
Mancy Hardy, a cultivator of Christmas trees in Penlyne Castle, checks on his crop.

Ol’ McDonald had a farm way up in the Blue Mountains, and on that farm he planted juniper trees, and then to town he would take them.

That was 1970s Penlyne Castle.

It was the direct involvement of this mystical pioneer, according to storytelling cultivators on the hilly terrain of St Thomas, that spawned the tradition of hundreds of trees being sold on the outskirts of Village Plaza on Constant Spring Road, St Andrew, as part of the Jamaican Christmas experience and which has given rise to a lineage of farmers.

Berchel ‘Jah B’ Smith and sons Alex, Ipal, and Rasah are second- and third-generation Christmas tree farmers with a combined 52 years in the business.

They are not alone as several other families cultivate the evergreens, including 615 species of extant conifers, of which the cypress, sciadopitys, and pine are family members.

“What you see us doing now, it’s him really create what is now the industry, because back in the days, what I was told is that he used to cut juniper trees, something that looks much like our Christmas tree, and cut out the head out of it and sell it.

“It was his work that allowed us, as the next generation, to take it to the next level. He used to give us a lot of advice and so forth on how to plant and shape the trees. So it was his baby,” said Alex.

The senior Smith said he has been cultivating Christmas trees for more than 35 years. He said that when he first started planting the trees, his only thought was to find about 10 for sale. But it has taken off as a full-fledged industry with orders coming in as quickly as a phone call is ended.

“It was customary back then to go over Westphalia to get the suckling trees, and we found a way to get the seeds, and from that, we plant it and learn to shape it like the snow cone,” Jah B told The Gleaner.

“And every year, it just gets bigger and more exciting. Thirty-five years doing this is hard work, but I can tell you, it is very rewarding, too,” Jah B said.

Prices vary widely in the industry, but $1,200 per foot is par.

His gratification from earning a living through the sale of these trees rubbed off on his sons.

Earlier in the day, Ipal and Rasah were seen dashing along a narrow roadway with trees atop a truck, destined for Kingston, where customers were awaiting the trees that they had preordered.

“As they say, what fall offa head drop pon shoulder. Now my youths are in their own right leaders in this effort now,” he said with a broad smile.

And they all have Ol’ McDonald to thank. He passed away about two years ago, but his legacy is still being carried on by residents of Penlyne Castle and is now a thriving seasonal business for many families who traditionally rely on coffee cultivation.

“The I looking to cut at least 300 trees for sale this season, but I have already planted up to 400 seedlings in terms of preparing for the future o’ this business,” the dreadlocked Jah B said.

It takes about three years for the plants to reach maturity, or to “full out”, as the farmers say in vernacular.