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Holiday Gift and Event Guide — The Altamont Enterprise, November 23, 2006

Christmas trees, fifty-thousand strong" Keeping the holiday spirit
alive all year"Through the woods for a perfect tree

By Rachel Dutil

Christmas trees inspire memories: Dragging a fir through the woods and then hoisting it onto the family’s car; decorating the tree with lights and ornaments; watching the smiling faces of children when they see the presents sitting under the tree, waiting to be unwrapped; or vacuuming up endless needles out of the carpet after Christmas has passed, and the new year has begun.

But for local farmers, readying for the upcoming season, which opens this weekend, the trees mean more.

The Van Ettens paid for a hardscrabble Hilltown farm by growing all the ground would support — Christmas trees.

Earl MacIntosh started his Guilderland tree farm to bring his family together and to keep the holiday spirit alive all year long.

Howard and Robin Coughtry — father and son — are both master carpenters. It was for the wood that they first planted the fir trees on the New Scotland land that has been in their family for centuries.

Van Etten Farms

George and Jan Van Etten bought their farm on Route 156 in Knox in 1959. The Van Ettens’ realtor told them the best way to pay off the farm would be to sell Christmas trees and firewood. The next year, they planted their first batch of trees.

Their property is now paid off.

"The soil is poor for farming," said Mr. Van Etten. The trees are on soil that is not suitable for any other agriculture, he said.
It takes about 10 to 12 years for the trees to reach six or seven feet in height, Mr. Van Etten said.

"The first year, we cut four trees and sold two for $2.50 each," he said. "So after 10 years, we made $5 on our investment."

The Van Ettens now have about 50,000 trees spread over six fields. Mr. Van Etten joked about an old saying: "You should not plant more trees than your wife can shear."

Mrs. Van Etten does all of the planting, and each spring puts 1,000 new seedlings into the ground. The trees are "all planted one-at-a-time," Mrs. Van Etten said.

She uses a planting bar to help with the process, Mr. Van Etten explained. The tool is shaped like a spear, and is used to first clear a spot for the tree and then to replace dirt around the roots of the tree.

If Mrs. Van Etten, and her daughter, Sue Mason – who helps out with the business – really work at it, they can plant 300 to 400 trees a day, Mr. Van Etten said. But the work is not easy.

Mrs. Van Etten says that, when she hears some of her customers griping about the work involved with cutting a tree, she chuckles a bit.

She tells them, "If you followed me around, you wouldn’t worry about cutting a small tree."

The Van Ettens sell about 50 trees in an average Christmas season. They also sell wreaths and kissing balls, which Mrs. Van Etten and her daughter make.

Mrs. Van Etten goes out and collects boughs and branches from trees to use for the wreaths and kissing balls. Mason makes the kissing balls, while Mrs. Van Etten does the wreaths.

Mrs. Van Etten cuts the branches into pieces about eight inches long. She said it takes about four hours for her to assemble 15 wreaths. The wreaths are generally made from the branches of both Douglas and balsam fir trees.

Mr. Van Etten said that his wife has become the "branch manager" for the farm.

A kissing ball made by Mason, which the Van Ettens say is not used in the same way as mistletoe, has a Styrofoam ball at the center with up to 200 Scotch Pine pieces attached. It is finished off with a bow.

"It just looks nice," said Mr. Van Etten, about his daughter’s kissing balls. The Van Ettens sell them for $30 each. They have three different sized wreaths, which sell for $10, $15, and $20. All trees sell for $25.

Customers at the Van Etten Farm can drive themselves into the field, or hop on a wagon for a hay ride.

After selecting the tree, they can then warm up in the Snack Shack, where Mason sells her "world-famous chocolate-chip cookies;" her father says she has been baking them for 20 years. She also sells hot chocolate, and hot dogs and marshmallows for roasting on the bonfire that the Van Ettens keep blazing in the field opposite the shack.

The farm also has pony rides for kids. Mrs. Van Etten said they have about 30 ponies.

The Van Ettens are members of the group, Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York. They have attended seminars and meetings hosting experts who talk about subjects such as wreath-making and tree disease.

Mrs. Van Etten said that she likes to pick out her tree before customers start cutting down the good ones. She used to hide her choice tree behind her house.

One year, though, she caught a customer trying to take her tree. She was forced to set him straight, saying, "Over my dead body, you’re taking that tree! That’s mine."

She said she now has a better hiding place, but it will remain a secret.

Weathered Willow Tree Farm

Earl MacIntosh, a Christmas tree farmer on Old State Road in Guilderland, has been raising trees for about 30 or 35 years.

He does not do it for profits, he said, but to give his customers "a Christmas experience."

He started the farm for two reasons – stress relief, and, more importantly, he said, as a family activity.

Every year, he said, his whole family gets together at the farm and helps out with the business.

"The family enjoys the farm," he said.

MacIntosh prunes each of his trees, and prices them each individually. The only trees that are for sale, he said, are the trees that are tagged. The tag indicates the kind of tree and the price.

The price is based on the type of tree and the height. He charges about $6 per foot. Any flaws in the tree are compensated for in the price, he said, pointing out on various trees, areas with gaps in growth.

Those gaps, which may not be noticeable to most customers, are discounted in the price, MacIntosh said.

There are no Charlie Brown trees at MacIntosh’s farm.

MacIntosh, like the Van Ettens, offers his customers hay rides out to the fields to shop for the perfect tree.

He said that some families like to walk to the fields, some hauling children behind them in a toboggan.

MacIntosh also makes kissing balls, he said. He makes his kissing balls out of balsam fir.

The balsams hold their needles and their smell really well, MacIntosh said. He has a kissing ball from 1994. It has a sign pinned to it that reads, "Hi – I am a 1994 kissing ball who still smells swell. How’s this for needle retention""

The needles have turned brown, but they are mostly still intact, even after 12 years.

MacIntosh’s wife, Anne, runs the gift shop located at the head of the trail leading to the vast fields of trees.

In the shop, there is hot chocolate for sale, along with various little Christmas trinkets. Beverly Wilsey, a local artist from Voorheesville, hand-paints glass ornaments that can be purchased at the gift shop.

The MacIntoshes also sell wreaths, kissing balls, centerpieces, and swags, all made from various types of tree branches, and decorated with ribbons and cones.

"It’s a family affair," MacIntosh said.

He has gifts that he hands out to the customer’s children, he said. The kids can choose between coloring books, plastic molds that can be used to make snow-blocks for building snow forts, and saucers for sledding.

MacIntosh said most parents hope their child chooses the saucer, because it has the most value.

A drawing is also held each year for the women to win a hand-made Christmas tree skirt, he said.

Weathered Willow Tree Farm also offers saplings that can be used as wedding favors, or as a gift offered at a party, MacIntosh said.

He said one of his customers has a tree in his yard that was a wedding favor at MacIntosh’s daughter’s wedding, 15 years ago.

MacIntosh is a member of the National Christmas Tree Association, which sponsors an annual Help Santa Find the Perfect Real Christmas Tree essay contest for children.

This will be the third year that MacIntosh has urged kids to enter the contest, he said. The first year he did it, a girl from Schenectady won second place, he said. The next year, when he proudly announced on one of his hay rides that a local girl had won, a man spoke up, pointed to his daughter and said, "She’s right here."

Prizes for the 2006 contest include a $5,000 to $10,000 scholarship or a trip for four to Florida.

MacIntosh also took part in a program sponsored by the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation, called Trees for Troops. The foundation has teamed up with FedEx to help boost the Christmas spirit of soldiers by sending them trees.

Last year, 4,300 Christmas trees were donated nationwide to more than 20 military bases in the United States, as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Qatar; two of those trees came from MacIntosh in Guilderland. This year, the foundation’s goal is 11,000 Christmas tree donations.

MacIntosh, whose New York license plate reads, "UCUTTREE," told The Enterprise, "Hopefully, we are in the holiday spirit all the time."

The Coughtrys

Howard Coughtry’s family has been living in New Scotland since the 1700s. Mr. Coughtry and his son, Robin, live on Hilton Road.

Both Coughtry men are master carpenters by trade, the younger Coughtry said.

"We sort of fell into the Christmas tree business by accident," he said. When his father started planting trees, the purpose was firewood.

The Coughtrys estimate they have 10,000 trees. They run their business on a cut-your-own basis only, Coughtry said.

All the trees are $30. He also said that he keeps a few cut trees by the barn and customers can cut boughs and take them if they want.

"When people arrive, we hand them a buck saw, and a sled, for hauling the tree back with," Coughtry said. The customers just head off into the woods in search of their tree.

Usually, if it starts getting dark, and the tree-seekers have not yet made it back, Coughtry goes out searching for them. "The trail going through the woods disappears after it gets dark,’ he said.

No one has gotten lost in a few years, he said, but it has happened.

Customers feel like friends when they enter the Coughtrys’ two-century-old workshop building to pay for their tree and return their saw.

Coughtry said that the business is not about money. "It was fun doing it with my father," he said.

He said he remembers helping customers stuff trees into their cars, when he was a kid. He would often wonder how they would finagle the tree out of the car.

The Coughtrys always mowed around each tree, he said. They don’t do it now, as Coughtry no longer has the time for it; he cares for his 86-year-old father who fought his way back from a debilitating stroke.

"Part of the fun was coming up with ideas to make things work," Coughtry said. His father designed a machine called "Purple People Eater," a mowing device with wooden wheels.

Coughtry said that the rocks and tree stumps in the tree fields were constantly causing flat tires on the mowers, so wooden wheels were a way to solve that problem.

Purple People Eater II came around a few years later. The younger Coughtry designed the second Purple People Eater.

The machine had a rotating arm that Coughtry controlled with a foot pedal. The mower sort of floated over the land, he said, and he could swivel it around obstacles, such as trees and rocks.

It really cut down on mowing time, he said.

It was made out of lots of used parts, he said, and both Coughtrys laughed. It had Honda tractor and car parts, Craftsman mower parts, Sears mower parts, and a Harley Davidson clutch cable, Coughtry said.

The Coughtrys are just as creative when working with wood. The home they live in has boards lining the walls and ceiling, that Howard Coughtry harvested and then hand-planed himself.

"We don’t sell the trees with the roots, because when they’re gone, we’re left with the holes," Howard Coughtry said with a laugh.

Eggnog is the grog of choice this holiday season

Why not sip eggnog while trimming your tree this year" You’ll be participating in a tradition that reaches back for centuries.

Alcohol and milk punches began in renaissance Europe, and traveled to the New World with its first European settlers. Captain John Smith reported that Jamestown settlers made eggnog in 1607.

In England, where eggnog was served both hot and cold at Christmastime, it was the trademark drink of the upper class.

"You have to remember, the average Londoner rarely saw a glass of milk," writes historian James Humes. "There was no refrigeration, and the farms belonged to the big estates." Mixing the dairy products with brandy or even sherry was thought to preserve them.

In America, farms and dairy products were plentiful, and so was rum. Rum, from the Caribbean, "was far more affordable than the heavily taxed brandy or other European spirits that it replaced at our forefathers’ holiday revels," writes Humes.

Even George Washington devised his own recipe, which included rye whisky, rum, and sherry and was reputed to be a stiff drink — perhaps living up to the old adage of making a man see double but feel single.


Mark Twain observed a century later that "too much of anything is bad, but too much whisky is just enough." Fanny Farmer, in her classic American cookbook, provides this recipe for eight quarts of eggnog with "just enough";

1 dozen eggs, separated

1/2 teaspoon salt

21/4 or more cups sugar

2 cups or more of bourbon

1/2 cup rum or whiskey

1 quart of milk

2 tablespoons of vanilla

3 pints of heavy cream


Beat together the egg yolks and salt in a large mixing bowl, slowly adding 11/2 cups of the sugar. Continue beating until thick and pale.

Stir in the bourbon, rum, milk, and vanilla until well mixed. Beat the egg whites until foamy and slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar, continuing to beat until stiff and all the sugar has been incorporated.

Whip the cream until stiff.

Now fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture and then fold in the whipped cream. Taste and add more bourbon or sugar if necessary.

Pour into a punch bowl and sprinkle the top with nutmeg.


— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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