10 Secrets of Christmas Tree Farmers

Patrick, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Patrick, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A Christmas tree may occupy a corner of your living room, and your consciousness, for only a few weeks each winter. But it and its evergreen ilk are a full-time, year-round preoccupation at the thousands of farms across the country that grow holiday pines and firs and spruces. And there’s a lot more to the business than sticking trees in dirt and then chopping them off at the trunk a few years later. Mental Floss tracked down some of the men and women working on farms around the nation to learn some of the secrets of their trade.

1. THE TREES THEY GROW NOW ARE DIFFERENT THAN THE TREES THEY GREW FOR OUR PARENTS.

Americans love firs. The type available at your local tree stand or choose-and-cut farm depends on conditions in each of the states that grow them. Rainy weather in Oregon—which sells some 7 million trees a year, the most of any state—is favorable to noble firs. Frasers thrive in North Carolina’s mid-range elevations, where it’s cold in winter and cool in summer; balsams are native to Vermont. But 40 years ago, folks were partial to un-manicured spruces and Scotch pines. These trees were “taller, spindlier, and had barren gaps between the branches, which were conducive to [decorating with] candles,” Luke Laplant, who sells trees from Vermont’s Windswept Farms on the streets of Brooklyn, tells Mental Floss.

What can we expect for the next big trend in trees? Marsha Gray, director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, says that growers have lately been experimenting with exotic species like short-needled Turkish and compact Korean firs.

2. THEIR CUSTOMERS HAVE SOME … UNUSUAL IDEAS.

Customers bringing home a Christmas tree
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Doug Hundley, a retired grower from North Carolina, still laughs about misconceptions he heard from customers at the farm he owned for 30 years. To wit: They imagined that the tidy rows of trees planted on his five acres had magically sprung from seeds dropped from a nearby pine stand. In fact, tree farms are usually launched with young, 3-to-5-year-old trees purchased from specialty nurseries, which are planted in 5-foot by 5-foot grids— about 1700 trees per acre. An acre of additional trees is planted every year, and after eight or nine years, “You’ll have that first acre starting to come ready” to sell, Hundley tells Mental Floss. Trees to replace them go in the ground soon after the initial batch comes down, staggered about a foot away from the leftover stumps, which quickly rot away.

Many of Laplant’s customers ask about adding supposed “preservatives,” like Sprite or aspirin, to the tree water in the stand. But he says these stunts are unnecessary for keeping trees green. “Just make sure you make a fresh cut to the bottom of the trunk before you put it in the stand, so it doesn’t scar over, and check it for water every day,” he advises.

3. THEY HAVE A DIFFERENT TASK FOR EVERY SEASON.

Christmas tree farmers are like farmers of every other crop: They rarely have time for vacations. There’s a brief lull in activity during winter, once the year’s trees have been cut and the farm goes dormant. But otherwise, there’s work to be done in every season. Hundley explains, “Starting in March, we’re really busy planting more trees and fertilizing. In summer, we’re managing weeds and insects and shearing the trees.” Then it’s fall again—harvest time; farmers start collecting wreath-making greenery as early as October, and the actual tree-cutting lasts through December.

4. THEY WORK (REALLY) HARD TO BRING YOU THAT CONICAL SHAPE.

Christmas trees at a Christmas tree farm
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That stereotypical tapered Christmas tree silhouette doesn’t happen all by itself. It’s the result of heavy hand labor over time. For two months beginning in July, workers head out to the fields with knives and other tools to shear the trees, cutting off new branches and needles from the sides in order to slow down growth and encourage a fuller, more pleasing shape. Every tree gets whittled down like this every year, which is why it takes almost a decade for it to reach its desired height of six or seven feet, rather than, say, four years.

5. NATURE IS CRUEL, BUT SCIENCE IS TRYING TO HELP.

The number one blight on Fraser firs is phytophthora root rot, which causes needles to turn yellow and fall off. This troublesome oomycete (related to algae) can’t be controlled with chemicals. So, evergreen farmers have been attempting to breed disease-resistant trees: Frasers are grafted onto rootstock from Abies firma (a.k.a. the momi fir). It’s native to Japan, and it’s supposed to have serious oomycete-repelling properties. Hundley says positive effects from these efforts have been slow to manifest, though.

6. THEY ALL AGREE: FAKE CHRISTMAS TREES ARE THE ENEMY.

Red Christmas ball on a background white artificial spruce
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“Nine years in the house, nine million years in the landfill.” That’s a phrase popular among real-Christmas-tree farmers to describe their nemeses, plastic “pines”—many of which are imported into the U.S. from China. Hundley remarks that sustainability-minded Teddy Roosevelt banned Christmas trees from the White House during his time in office, in order to protect trees growing wild in forests. But, “We don’t harvest wild” anymore, says Hundley, adding, “Would you buy artificial roses to give your [spouse] on Valentine’s Day?”

7. ENVIRONMENTALISM IS PART OF THE BUSINESS.

Unlike their plastic counterparts, real trees get returned to the land once we’re done with them, in the form of mulch. Farms full of live trees can also offer environmental benefits: The trees hold the soil against erosion, and they provide habitat for hosts of beneficial critters such as ladybird beetles and spiders, as well as birds, rabbits, and deer. These farms’ secondary function as wildlife hotels has caused growers to adopt more eco-friendly pest management techniques in the last 25 years, according to Hundley—including scaling back on pesticides. “We’re trying to create the most ecological environment we can,” he says.

8. THEY FEAR THE WASP.

Wasps in a yew tree
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Harboring wildlife comes with a downside: wasps, which are attracted to the sweet “honeydew” produced by sap-sucking aphids that feed off the trees. Wasps can be ornery when disturbed—like when crews of workers head out to shear trees in July. “The rule is,” Hundley says, “if you hear a loud humming, you put down your (very sharp) knife and take off running. And when one guy runs, everyone runs—you don’t wait to see where the sound is coming from.”

9. HARVESTING HAPPENS FAST.

There’s a short window of time in which to get trees to market—about a week or two, according to Gray. That’s because a cut tree exposed to sun and wind quickly starts to dry out and shed its needles. Growers with small farms may rely on family members to cut each tree with a chainsaw, shake the dead needles off it, then bale and stack it somewhere cool and dark. “A lot of farmers have a stand of natural evergreen forest on their property, and they’ll store the cut trees in their shade” where they retain moisture, Hundley explains. Larger producers in the Pacific Northwest, who grow millions of trees on thousands of acres, hire seasonal crews of 100 or more cutters and “slingers” to saw and stack. Gray says they use helicopters to get trees down the mountains and load them—as many as 1000 an hour—onto the flatbeds of market-bound trucks.

10. THEY WORK UP TO 16 HOURS A DAY IN THE SELLING SEASON.

A man cutting down a Christmas tree
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“Our Brooklyn stand is open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but I get here earlier to set up and afterwards, there are deliveries and lots of cleanup,” says Laplant. To keep warm, he relies on layers of long underwear, a waterproof hooded coat, plenty of extra socks (he travels down with 40 pairs) and gloves (12 pairs). “On a rainy day, gloves get wet after you handle the first 10 trees, so you have to swap them out,” he says. Other annoyances: people who let their dogs pee on the trees or who aggressively pull at the needles then complain that they’re falling out. What makes the aggravations worth it: For Laplant and his coworkers, it’s getting delicious food delivered from all over town.

14 Secrets of Food Sample Demonstrators

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Ever turn a corner in your local grocery store or warehouse club and see the aisle backed up? You might be able to blame a food sample demonstrator, those stationary sales representatives who invite congestion in stores by offering up free bites of food products in an effort to raise sales. (The strategy works—one study found that samples can increase sales by as much as 2000 percent.)

The task might look easy, but it isn’t. Sample demonstrators have to endure annoyed customers who can’t navigate aisles due to the traffic, unattended kids, and more—all while adhering to food safety regulations. To get a better perspective on the job, Mental Floss spoke with two former demonstrators. Here’s what we found out about life in the apron.

1. THEY’RE USUALLY NOT EMPLOYED BY THE STORE.

Food demonstrators are often mistaken for store employees, but they're usually not. The people working behind sample trays at Costco, for example, are often employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), a separate entity that hires sample representatives to present products endorsed by Costco and usually backed by the product manufacturer. (Companies can send their own reps out, too.) “CDS might have an office set up in the back of the store,” says Jim, a former food sample demonstrator for Costco locations in California. “We’d sign in, go through the warehouse, and get a quick brief on the product we were demonstrating.”

Though CDS is owned by Costco, CDS employees aren’t technically store employees, and don’t migrate to other work areas. But because customers figure the demonstrators work for the warehouse, they’re often asked for directions. “People just assume you know where stuff is,” Jim says. “I usually told them to find someone in a red vest.”

2. THEY CAN SPEND HALF THEIR SHIFT PREPPING.

A man mixes ingredients in a bowl
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It may seem like a sample demonstrator is burning calories at the rate of a Queen's Guard, but they're usually very busy during the course of a six- or eight-hour shift. Food prep—including mixing ingredients for things like chicken salad or cooking steak strips—can take up as much as half of their time. It’s worth it, as cooked food has a huge advantage over ready-to-eat samples like chips. “There’s a kind of anticipation you build up when cooking something like steak,” Jim says. “It could take a few minutes or 45 minutes, and people are standing there asking when it will be ready.”

3. THEY NEED TO STAY WITHIN A 12-FOOT RADIUS OF THE CART.

Food sample demonstrators may sometimes work in a massive warehouse, but they don’t have the run of the property. Once they’ve settled into their work area—typically near where the product they’re demonstrating is stocked or wherever there’s free space in the building—they’re expected to never be more than 12 feet away from the cart. “The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you’re responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe,” says Skyler, a former demonstrator for Costco. “If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it’s a liability.” Demonstrators also need to make sure no one is grabbing a sample and then putting it back, which would be a gross (literally) violation of food handling safety. Once you touch it, it goes either in your mouth or in the garbage.

4. THEY FOLLOW AN ACRONYM FOR SALES SUCCESS.

Vice-president Joe Biden greets food sample servers at a Costco
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Food sample pushers don’t work on commission, but they can get bonuses if they sell through their inventory, so it benefits them to make sure people are consuming what they’re offering. One method for enticing customers is what Jim describes as a corporate acronym called SITGA. “It stands for Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask,” he says. Demonstrators are also free to come up with their own strategy. “I liked to rhyme, like ‘come on by, give it a try,’ that sort of thing.”

5. THEY HAVE TRICKS FOR STAVING OFF BOREDOM.

Speaking with the Yes and Yes blog, Sam's Club food demo specialist Jan said that the hours spent sporadically interacting with customers can require demonstrators to make up their own fun. "I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance ... I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, or I try to engage customers in conversation."

6. THEY GET TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME RESPONSES.

A man in an apron looks tired
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Sometimes it's hard to tell what's worse—going for long stretches without customers, or hearing the canned answers they love to give over and over (and over) again. "Customers make stock remarks about certain foods," Jan said. "If you serve sausage, they ask, 'Where are the pancakes?' If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get, 'Now I need a donut.'"

7. THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH “SAMPLE NINJAS” ...

There’s usually no cap on the number of samples a customer can grab from a cart. Still, people can feel a degree of embarrassment going back for seconds—or thirds—and sometimes try to sneak a taste without being seen. Skyler calls these people “sample ninjas” for their attempts to go undetected. “People love free food,” he says. “They don’t want to be seen as freeloaders, they don’t want to hear a sales pitch, they just want snacks.”

8. ... BUT THAT SHAME CAN WORK IN THE STORE’S FAVOR.

A woman examines a supermarket shelf
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When people are so addicted to a food sample they keep going back for more, they might opt to just buy the product rather than risk being perceived as a greedy shopper. “There have been cases where I’ve been shopping at Costco myself and went and bought something because my overwhelming shame kept me from grabbing a fifth sample,” Skyler says. “The system works.”

9. THEY HAVE A HEIGHT POLICY.

Kids represent a dilemma for demonstrators. If they’re unaccompanied by a parent, it can be potentially problematic to offer up a baked good or other food that could contain an allergen. Fortunately, most kids are aware of their food sensitivities. According to Jim, the unofficial rule of thumb is to give out samples to unattended children if they’re tall enough to see what’s on the cart. “We can’t really determine the age of a kid just by looking,” he says. “They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is.”

10. THEY HAVE REGULARS.

Food samples are set out on a tray
iStock

Many Costco demonstrators stick to one store or district, making them a familiar face for people who shop there frequently. “There were definitely regulars,” Skyler says. “I would see old teachers from school, old friends, new friends, and regulars who would know my sales pitch and always play along—for more free samples, obviously.” Others were memorable for other reasons. “I was making cookies once and a woman grabbed the raw cookie dough and yelled at me because it was not cooked.”

11. THEY DEMO NON-EDIBLE PRODUCTS, TOO.

While Jim estimates that 90 percent of his time was spent demonstrating food, CDS also handles accounts for a variety of indigestible products, like Ziploc bags. “I’ve done dish soap and laundry soap, which is hard to demonstrate on the floor,” he says. “You have to give someone a sample and hope they try it and then come back.” Another time, Costco charged him with selling prefabricated outdoor tool sheds. “No one is buying a $3000 shed on the spot. They take a flyer. We didn’t get a sale the entire week.”

12. THEY HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE SURE NO FOOD GOES TO WASTE.

Food sits in a trash can
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Toward the end of their shift, demonstrators start to estimate how many more samples they’ll need to meet remaining demand without setting out food that will wind up going to waste. “I do what I can not to waste anything,” Jim says. “We’ll usually make sure we’re done cooking by a certain time so nothing is left over.” Sealed food might go to a food pantry, depending on store policies, but prepared and unused food goes into the garbage. And no, it's not going to the demonstrators: They’re prohibited from taking the excess home.

13. NOT EVERYTHING THEY MAKE IS APPETIZING TO THEM.

Sample demonstrators are usually expected to taste their supply so they can make informed comments when a customer presses for details. While most everything is intended to be delicious, it may not necessarily be the demonstrator's own personal preference. "[I served] horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved," Jan told Yes and Yes. "When cut into bite sized pieces, [they] squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them."

14. THEY APPRECIATE A LITTLE CUSTOMER ETIQUETTE.

Food samples are set out on a tray
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While free food can cause some of us to abandon civility and manners, food sample demonstrators always appreciate when customers acknowledge they have a job to do—and it’s not to hand out free stuff. Listening to their sales pitch is the polite thing to do in exchange for the eats. “Just try to remember that it’s a sales job and that final sale number is being held over the sample demonstrators’ heads,” Skyler says. “They’re not just someone being paid to hand out food to boost customer morale.”

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

iStock
iStock

For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

A woman browsing near a sign for half-price paperbacks at a bookstore
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Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

A red sign advertising bestsellers at a bookstore
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One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

A red sign advertising bestsellers at a bookstore
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In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

Long rows of books at a bookstore
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“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

A brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore in Seattle
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Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

A blue sign with white letters spelling out the word "books" and a hand pointing
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In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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