Get ready for the festive ritual of choosing a fresh, beautifully scented tree to decorate your home… this month we meet Gill Miller and the family at North Luffenham’s Digby Farm, home to enough Christmas trees to supply a quarter of Rutland’s homes!
If You Were to raise a glass of something festive to Gill Miller and family in the run up to Christmas, we’d suggest a toast that goes something along the lines of ‘may next year bring plenty of rain, and far fewer rabbits.’
There are about 20,000 households in Rutland and as Digby Farm harvests about 5,000 trees, a year, that’s the equivalent of one each for a quarter of all homes in the county. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, because Digby Farm’s customers also visit the place from Stamford, Leicester, Peterborough and even further afield. Nevertheless, if you find yourself admiring a really beautiful tree somewhere in Rutland at some point over the festive season, there’s a good chance that if came from the North Luffenham Farm.
The family supplies Wicksteed Park and Nene Valley with their monster trees, and also the tree that appears in the Market Place of Uppingham during Fatstock.
But by far the most popular trees aren’t those which grow to 23ft, they’re the 6ft ones which many Rutlanders take home, usually on the last weekend of November so they can put up and decorate their tree ready for 1st December… which means Gill and the family are about to be very busy indeed.
“The soil isn’t ideal here, so we have to work quite hard, but we’ve been producing Christmas trees for the area since 1991,” says Gill.
“Christmas trees aren’t especially good for rotating with other arable crops, but we tend to leave a field fallow after we’ve harvested trees so that it can rest. Over the years, too, we’ve planted so many trees and incorporated back into the soil so much organic material, including tree roots from harvested trees, that the soil has become more acidic, which the trees love.”
“Rabbits are a pest, and we’d always like to have a bit more rain. This year has seen an exceptionally dry spring and summer which hasn’t been ideal.”
By far the biggest challenge of being a Christmas tree farm, beyond the obvious issue that your crop is only in demand once a year, is that trees take so long to grow… about a foot each year, in fact.
So when you take your 6ft Christmas tree home, it’s probably eight years old, having been established for a couple of years before shooting skyward for six years or so. The farm covers over 150 acres with about half of it dedicated just to Christmas trees.
“There’s no convenient or automatic way to irrigate the farm if we don’t get enough rain, so we’re at the mercy of nature a little in that respect, and neither is there an automated way to harvest them at this scale either.”
“So it’s down to the team to venturing into the fields at this time of year with a chainsaw and a tractor & trailer to ensure we can keep the Christmas shop continually stocked with nice fresh trees.”
“We open to the public from about 25th November and it’s become a regular ritual for many people; the start of their festive season. They enjoy a walk through the fields, with a cup of coffee or a hot chocolate, and have a wander, just enjoying the scent of the trees and the fresh air.”
“Sometimes we’re asked to cut a specific tree for a customer but most of the time we’ve something of the right size and shape already cut. When we harvest we’re always selective, choosing trees which aren’t effected by pests and which have a nice healthy appearance and a good shape.”
“The best way to make a tree last through to Christmas is to make sure it’s fresh. We’re cutting daily throughout the season so ours are really as good and as fresh as they get.”
“Because the sap hasn’t sealed the base of our trees yet there’s no need to cut the bottoms off, just make sure they’re secured in a really good quality stand and given plenty of water.”
“As for our family, we don’t tend to put our tree up until 24th December. We’re completely exhausted by that time as we’re all so busy right up to Christmas itself, but we’ll also be on a real high, knowing that we’ve helped to make so many people’s Christmas really special!”
Digby Farm has been selling Christmas trees to the public for 30 years from their family Christmas tree farm and its Christmas shop, located in North Luffenham, LE15 8LF. Call 01780 678508 or see www.digbyfarm.co.uk.