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4 Christmas Lane Bethlehem, NH 03574
The Rocks Estate, Bethlehem, NH
The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem is pushing the “Buy Local” movement beyond the traditional farm fare of vegetables, meat, and dairy. The main crop at The Rocks is Christmas trees, which are both locally grown and farm fresh, but The Rocks also provides agri- and eco-tourism opportunities, along with year-round educational programs in its capacity as the North Country Conservation and Education Center for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
“People really want to learn about rural things now and local agriculture,” says Nigel Manley, the farm’s manager.
While the few weeks immediately prior to Christmas remain the busiest time at The Rocks, Manley has steadily increased the year-round appeal of the farm, offering a springtime maple sugaring program, regular natural history talks, and custom-made tours for small groups or motor coach excursions. The cumulative effect is that somewhere between 14,000 and 16,000 people now visit The Rocks Estate each year.
Manley was hired at The Rocks in 1986, when the farm was in its waning days as pastureland for a local dairy farmer. For a few years, he harvested and sold “wild” Christmas trees – firs that had grown under power lines and were
minimally handled as they grew. The first trees fated to be farm-raised were planted in 1989 and, as Manley says, “We’ve been planting ever since.”
The Rocks now has 60 acres of Christmas trees. That translates into roughly 52,000 firs on the property, and tending that many trees is a year-round occupation. About 7,000 new fir trees are planted at The Rocks each year in late April. Fertilizing and weed control happen in May, along with handling any pest and fungus issues that come up. Every tree is pruned between June and September. Four times each year the fields are mowed. From late August into September, each of about 3,000 trees slated for wholesale vendors is graded and tagged.
The Rocks employs two full-time workers and two part-time employees year-round. Seven full-time workers are added in July and August to help with the labor-intensive pruning. The Christmas tree selling season involves an additional 29 part-time employees, who manage tree sales, wreath decorating, and two busy gift shops. Volunteers aboard horse-drawn wagon rides also lead discussions of the human and natural history of The Rocks during Christmas tree season and the springtime Maple Experience.
That history reaches far beyond the first fir trees planted here, back to the turn of the twentieth century when a wealthy Chicago family came east each summer to shape the landscape of what is now The Rocks into a thoughtfully designed summer retreat and working farm. Frances and John Jacob Glessner, a founding director of International Harvester, purchased the 100-acre Streeter Farm in 1882 and gradually added to the property over the course of two decades, constructing elaborate buildings and formal gardens. Many of the buildings have been carefully preserved and are still in use, and The Rocks Estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Glessners’ grandchildren deeded the property to the Forest Society in 1978.
Beyond Christmas trees, much of the property at The Rocks is now managed woodlands. Manley and his small crew prune 180 apple trees – purely for the benefit of local wildlife. A trails system is maintained and open to free public use. Manley also helps the sugar maker who leases the sugar orchard place about 1,000 taps in early spring. And he’s often leading group or private tours or developing and delivering a natural history discussion.
In short, there’s rarely a dull moment at The Rocks, which Manley figures is true of any farm: “If you’re going to go into farming, you have to like it, and you have to be willing to work hard. As a farmer or farm manager you’ll be responsible for all sorts of different jobs.”
The Rocks Estate
4 Christmas Lane
Bethlehem, NH 03574
• Christmas tree cut-your-own and retail sales mid-November through Christmas Eve
• Mail order/online sales year-round
• Gift shops open early November through Christmas Eve
• New Hampshire Maple Experience tours last two weekends of March, first of April
• Self-guided maple tours July 1 through Columbus Day
• Trails system open year-round, daily, dawn to dusk
• Educational programs, group tours, custom private tours offered year round. Call or email for details.
Meghan McCarthy McPhaul is an author and former newspaper reporter. She pens a regular column for the Littleton Record, as well as web copy and press releases for various businesses and her writing has also appeared in several regional and national publications, including Powder, Northern Woodlands, Forest Notes, and the Journal of the New England Ski Museum. www.MeghanMcPhaul.com
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