Writer / Lois Tomaszewski
Photographer / Timothy Hare
For many families, a trip to a Christmas tree farm and the hunt for that perfect tree is a treasured holiday tradition. For the Potter family in Fulton County, helping families find that tree is not only their business, but their passion as well. They operate Potter’s “The Family Tree” Christmas Tree Farm in Akron.
Patriarch Brian Potter planted the first trees on his 20-acre property in 1991.
“Tree farming has been a secondary job,” Potter says. “I graduated from Purdue with a horticulture bachelor of science degree, and worked at a nursery through high school and college.”
His daughter, Laurel Whetstone, says the decision to start a tree farm was an economical one. It has always been a family-run business, with grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren helping throughout the year, especially during the holiday sale season.
“Dad started planting the trees in 1991 as a way to save money for college for my sisters and me,” Whetstone says. “My husband Scott and I then started planting trees in 2010 to save money for our boys.”
The farm is all about family. At least four generations are involved in the tree farm, from helping with the care of the crop to being on hand for the holiday season.
“Dad has always kept everything going smoothly, even before each of us were old enough to know how to help,” Whetstone says. “He is the glue that holds us all together and is knowledgeable about every part of the tree farm. He has taught all of us everything we know.”
At 89, Whetstone’s grandmother Sherrill, her mother Debbie’s mother, makes bows for wreaths. Debbie Potter contributes to the bow-making process and provides meals when the tree farm is open, brewing up hot apple cider for the customers. Whetstone’s brother-in-law, Zac Kelly, handles social media, and is the first Potter family relation that customers see when arriving at the farm. Whetstone’s sister, Heather Kelly, is the main cashier who interacts with most of the customers.
The Kelly children – Ben, 18, Will, 14, and Claire, 12 – help as well. They are tasked with explaining the process, as well as shaking and netting the trees. Also lending a hand is Ashley Potter, the youngest daughter, with her children, Oliver, 15, Karson, 12, and Piper, 3.
“My husband Scott and I also handle all the greenery items and manage the gift shop,” Whetstone says. “Our boys, Isaac, 15, Tucker, 12, and Wyatt, 10, help with what is needed. Isaac especially loves helping if farm equipment is being used to spread mulch around the trees in the summer or get firewood for grandpa.”
It’s not the kind of business from which the owners reap the rewards immediately. It takes years for the saplings to grow into sellable trees. For the fir and spruce variety that time is eight to 10 years, and for pine trees a minimum of six years is needed.
“We plant around 500 to 2,500 trees in the spring depending on how much room we have to plant new trees,” Whetstone says. “The trees are two to three years old when we purchase them and plant them.”
A tree farm is, after all, a farm, which means that the crop must be taken care of all year long. From planting new trees to managing weeds, sheering the trees in the summer, fertilizing the trees and mowing, there are enough chores to keep the family busy.
Greenery is harvested from damaged trees that cannot be sold, and is used to make grave pillows, wreaths, swags and centerpieces for sale in the gift shop. The shelves in the gift shop also need to be stocked with holiday-themed merchandise before the tree farm opens in mid November.
That’s when things get busy. The public comes out to look over the selection, cut down their trees and take them home to decorate for the holidays. The Potter family is on-site to help with tips about the various trees, and provide tools and muscle for the process.
“Each tree is unique in the way it grows and fills in, so that allows everyone to have a tree that fits their preference and style,” Whetstone explains. “We make sure each summer that each tree has a leader as close to the center of the treetop as we can. Sometimes birds or deer break off the leader that would have worked best, so we choose a different leader to hopefully take over.”
One customer liked the story of a tree that was damaged from deer rubbing their antlers on it and chose that imperfect tree, Whetstone says.
Some trees have soft needles, such as white pine and Frasier firs. Others have firmer needles, such as the Scotch pine, concolor fir or Norway spruce varieties.
“People may choose their tree based on how heavy their ornaments are or what type of tree they prefer,” Whetstone says.
The family atmosphere extends to those who visit as well. Games and a child-sized selfie spot are set up for children, and everyone visiting can enjoy complimentary peanuts to enjoy with their cider.
Last year was one of the busiest in the tree farm’s history, Potter says. The family is hoping this year will be busy too, and feels there are plenty of worthy trees to be selected and cut by families.
Working with family and friends and seeing repeat customers every year are the rewards the Potter family members receive from the business.
“Working with family is my favorite part,” Potter says. “Standing back watching my daughters, sons-in-law and grandkids working hard with little or no instruction from grandpa is fun.”