"It's a happy trade to be in," noted Jim Lavers, the retired military man who along with his wife operate The Christmas Farm on the Forest Road, a 10-minute drive north of the city. "No one's ever in a bad mood."
Up on Harrowsmith Road, a couple of kilometres west of Sydenham High School, Mark Alton of Alton Tree Farm repeated the visitor's query before offering his stock reply. "What kind of tree is best? The one you like."
Here we have two family-run tree plantations, friendly rivals unknown to one another engaged in a business that's been around since that spring in 1901 when a New Jersey farmer planted 25,000 Norway Spruce seedlings and raised them to market. One operation is in its infancy, the other gradually winding down after a long, productive run.
It can be said that running a tree farm is the antithesis of, say, manning a customer complaint call line. Gripes, grumbles and whines are as common as snowballs in Cuba. It is indeed, as Jim Lavers pointed out, a happy trade.
The Lavers didn't enter this new endeavour blindfolded. Before they did anything, before even purchasing property, they joined the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario and diligently inspected and researched every aspect.
Four years ago, after buying the Forest Road farm, they opened their evergreen dispensary.
They planted 1,000 trees that spring and each spring thereafter, the goal to become an established cut-your-own tree farm, such as the Alton Tree Farm in nearby Sydenham.
While they wait for their aromatic merchandise to mature -- anywhere from six to 10 years with on average a 10 per cent loss -- they truck trees in from Jim's native Nova Scotia. Earlier this week, a tractor-trailer load of 500 tightly bundled balsam and Fraser fir arrived from Guysborough, N.S., a speck of the nearly two million Christmas trees harvested annually in that province.
"What took us by surprise," Jim conceded on the early days of the couple's second career, "was the amount of work and time involved. We were a bit worried over the level of effort required at our age," added the 57-year-old novice farmer, who has four years on his wife.
"But we learned, and the more we learned, the more it appealed to us."
One thing they learned along the way: Don't move the entire stock too soon.
In Year 1, they imported 300 trees, sold less than half and managed to break even. The next year was, in an odd sense, worse --- odd because the supply of 300 conifers sold out in the first three weeks. A full fortnight before Christmas, the fledgling entrepreneurs had nothing left for customers but apologies. "In this business," explained Deni adroitly, "you never want to run out too early."
The Alton Tree Farm has the distinction of being the same age as its owner.
"My father, Howard, was planting the first trees when I was born in 1954," said Mark Alton, who took over after his dad died in 2007.
Now the Altons, married 40 years but with no offspring to succeed them, are slowly but surely phasing out of the industry -- not yet and maybe not for a few more years, but soon. As Mark observed, it's not the ideal venture for someone anticipating an easy retirement.
"The last time we planted trees was four or five years ago," said the 61-year-old, who also has a live bait business and a paintball site on the property.
"We've built it to the point where the trees basically sell themselves," he said from a room in the old frame farmhouse passed down from his great-grandfather, Cornelius Alton, who lived here in the 19th century.
"But I've got no time to plant and trim. Call it one of those 'life changes.'"
He recalled the boom years of lavish sales figures and a couple of down years when fickle weather and a mysterious larvae infestation -- only the four- and five-year-old saplings were affected -- bruised the bottom line.
"Planting trees every year isn't so bad, but trimming with pruning shears, usually in late June or early July, in black fly season, can be hard work. Eighty trees in a row, 90 minutes to do each row, 10,000 trees: do the math. All for one small window of opportunity -- Dec. 1 to 24.
"Not even the greatest salesmen," he added with a chuckle, "can sell trees in January, February and March."
On a drive around the plantation, signs of overgrowth are becoming evident, although plenty of shapely specimens abound, including a towering copse of ramrod-straight red pines, ideal for hydro and telephone poles, said the owner.
He recalled long-ago Christmas tree prices of $1.75 wholesale and $3 retail, then $3 and $5, then $5 and $10 and so on. "My mom said they'll never sell at $10," he said. Of course they did sell, as will most of the 400 U-cut trees available this year. At $35 and up.
Altons have farmed this land for four generations, going back great-granddaddy Cornelius's modest dairy operation with a dozen milking head. "And his older brother had it before him," the great-grandson pointed out.
Howard Alton, a longtime educator with the Department of Indian Affairs, got the idea for a tree farm during a visit to a Quebec operation.
Both tree farms sweeten the tree-buying experience with free offerings of hot chocolate, apple cider and treats for the wee ones. Alton's farm is known for its wagon rides to and from the fields, once horse-drawn but now tractor-pulled. A popular kids attraction at The Christmas Farm is the tree shaker, a machine that removes dead needles. "Kids call it the tree dance," said Jim.
After looking at six different farms, the Lavers settled on their 50-acre spread with the four-bedroom, stucco-covered limestone house.
The original home, built in 1879, might've been one of Sir John A's haunts. An elderly schoolteacher informed the new homeowners that legend has it that the old Chieftain occasionally "partied" there, impromptu pop-in visits to slake his thirst during trips to and from the capital on the nearby Stagecoach Road.
The Lavers -- Deni is also retired from the Canadian Armed Forces though she remains a reservist -- were influenced by good friends Scott and Linda Cook, who've worked their Nova Scotia tree farm for better than 50 years.
Both farms donate trees to schools and special interest groups, though that annual deed is of particular importance to the Lavers, who "need to establish a clientele and get the word out." The 100 trees they provide to various schools each year assist with fundraising activities, as do sale proceeds from homemade wreaths.
Ditto at the Alton farm. In fact, Mark Alton has already delivered eight trees to the Mulberry Waldorf School in Kingston, props to be used in an upcoming school play.
Each has experienced unusual sales. The Lavers recounted the time two old sisters requested the worst tree on the lot. Jim returned with a deformed double-top spruce that was destined for the mulcher. "The top looked like a devil's fork," Jim said, "but as soon as they saw it, they go all excited and said 'That's the one!'"
Evidently, the siblings had a bet with other family members on who could find the ugliest tree.
Mark Alton recollected the young couple who showed up last minute after arriving from Montreal to visit parents in Kingston where the house did not have a tree.
"It was 11 o'clock on Christmas Eve when they got here," he said. "I hooked up the wagon and out we went with flashlights and everything. What made it really special was the night itself: A nice winter evening, not too cold, beautiful full moon. Just as we got to where the tree was, a light snow started to fall. You couldn't timed it any better. It was the perfect scene."
No interview with a tree farmer is complete without this question: What kind of tree do you put up?
For the Lavers, it's the fragrant Fraser fir with its conical crown and needle-like leaves.
As for the Altons, they switched many winters ago to the another popular variety, favouring longevity over scent. "I'm putting it up this week -- a Noma Canadian Tire special." He roared as if telling that story for the first time instead of the umpteenth.
A tree farmer erecting an artificial Christmas tree? That's like Joseph Seagram sipping moonshine over aged whisky; Julia Child ordering takeout; Santa Claus booking off the 25th.