If you’re not already in the camp that regards artificial Christmas trees as an abomination, just spend a little time with Dan Vanderzwet.
Dan is an ardent advocate for the real thing. With his wife, Heidi, their daughter Bella and sons Dominic and Joshua, he operates Potash Creek Farms, the only cut-your-own Christmas tree farm in Kawartha Lakes.
Dan grew up in Janetville and his passion was sparked by a summer job pruning trees in Pontypool. He completed an engineering degree in Windsor and found a position there but continued to dream of his own Christmas tree farm.
When Dan and Heidi happened upon a 99-acre farm for sale in rolling terrain southeast of Emily Park he knew he’d found what he wanted. The property included a seven-acre stand of wild spruce trees that could be harvested over the eight years it would take for their first tree plantings to mature.
Dan’s firm allowed him to work remotely, so the Vanderzwets bought the farm and returned to the Kawarthas.
I wanted Dan to take me through a year on the farm and help me understand its challenges and rewards.
“It takes eight months of work each year to grow trees people think take care of themselves,” says Dan.
After Christmas there’s a lull — he’s mostly thinking and planning. At the end of April, he plants two-to-three-year-old seedlings. Cones come off in May to preserve that perfect Christmas tree look and from June into August it’s pruning and trimming, and every week or so moving their Shropshire sheep to trim the low-maintenance grasses.
As the Nov. 28 opening approaches, Dan brings in locally cut balsam firs (a species they don’t grow on the farm). He also fells the wild spruce the family donates to enliven the empty square in Lindsay’s downtown. He and his family craft spruce and balsam fir wreaths to sell.
For the eight days a year they’re open — the four weekends from Nov. 28 to Dec. 21 — the family’s “Cozy Shack” opens. Dan harvests gourds grown on the farm (which Heidi paints and turns into ornaments), and arranges for locally-sourced gift items (this year from LeBeau Bees and Lanesend Farm.)
The number one challenge in juggling a full-time engineering job and a farm, he says, is the weather. “We’ve had two severe droughts over our time here, severe enough to almost wipe out a year of effort.”
But satisfaction far outweighs those challenges. “I enjoy being outdoors, and feel like I’m working with nature.” He takes pleasure in the wildlife that make their homes among the trees, such as sandhill cranes, wild turkeys, jackrabbits and deer.
“We love Christmas and enjoy being part of families’ celebrations. We meet neighbours and friends, for many of whom coming out to Potash Creek is becoming a family tradition.”
Physical distancing measures will be in effect this year, and the Cozy Shack will have complimentary apple cider dispensed through a take-out style window). But the warmth of the welcome won’t be any different.
There Christmas trees sure beat uncrating a shiny plastic tree manufactured overseas.