MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So while we're on the subject to holiday classics, trimming a Christmas tree is a holiday standby that dates back at least 500 years. But like most traditions, Christmas trees have changed a fair bit over the years. Sabri Ben-Achour gets back to holiday basics in a way, with an organic farmer who's taking a different approach to this most iconic of seasonal emblems.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
At a small but bustling organic farmers' market in Columbia Heights, I met up with Mike Taber. He's a sustainable who splits his time between his home in Silver Spring, Md. and his farm in Pennsylvania.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
It smells great here. What are you selling?
MR. MIKE TABER
We're selling a number of varieties of apples, apple-pear cider. We did bring back some goodies from Amish neighbors, some pies and of course, Christmas trees and wreaths that we make.
Taber grew up in a low-income housing project in Brooklyn, nowhere near a farm.
Yes, I grew up in Fort Green, in Brooklyn near the Navy Yard where there are no trees.
He got a masters degree in anthropology and then came to D.C. in the '60s, looking for a job in the public schools.
And I remember the assistant superintendant, one of the assistant superintendants, he interviewed me here in Washington. Where would I like to teach? And I said, Well, Anacostia or Northeast. And they said, Mr. Taber, you've almost got a Ph.D. You have got to teach in Northwest, period. We're talking 1965 and I said, you know, I'm not sure if education, the field is open for me. Which is what, again, led me and, once again, in a different direction.
A different direction that eventually led to farming. He's been at this now for 32 years, six days a week, getting up at 4:00 am. Christmas trees are one of his most important crops.
I mean, you have to understand. It's not a hobby. It's a way of extending our farm season so that we can pay people until the end of the season.
And his Christmas trees, they're not your typical trees.
Let's go walk over.
They're not perfect.
This tree would not be acceptable commercially. In fact, when I brought it to be baled, the guy said, well, why didn't you paint it, meaning, why didn't you dye it?
You heard right. Taber says most trees are painted. The National Christmas Tree Association says this isn't done to artificially color Christmas trees. The group says it's really just sunscreen to keep the needles from naturally bleaching during the late summer. But either way, Taber doesn't like it.
So these trees are somewhat different colors, somewhat rustic, less pruned than a lot of trees would be. More, a little bit more forest-like but still they're nice trees.
Taber says the typical perfectly pruned tree is forcing life to imitate plastic, which is not what he is about.
You know, we have this little label, sustainably raised trees.
And what does that mean?
It means we take extra care, no herbicides. There's no pesticides on the trees that are petroleum-derived. There's no artificial color and we really encourage people to replant little seedlings.
Is there certain amount of irony that a Jewish kid from Brooklyn ended up growing Christmas trees?
Well, I'm sure there is. We did put one daughter through Jewish day school from the Christmas tree money.
Taber says these days he just about breaks even. He's kind of an iconoclast when it comes to making a profit. He makes a point of keeping his prices low.
It's a high, lofty ideal that keeps on coming back to haunt us when we're short of money. I remember once, I got up at a conference of other sustainable growers and a part of the talk I gave was that if all we're doing is raising food for the wealthy, although that's not unimportant, if we're not selling to all income groups, there's a question about our purpose and our work.
As Taber speaks he spots an old man pocket an organic brownie from his stand and hobble off.
You know, if it helped that guy to take that dessert, that's fine.
It entails some sacrifices to be sustainable it sounds like.
Yes, yes, I mean, like these trees, it would make a difference if we used herbicide, if we used Roundup. It would be a lot easier to grow.
Taber says if he pushed his trees with fertilizer and pesticides, he could grow them in about eight years. But he doesn't, so his trees take 20 years to grow. That extra time and effort, he says, is worth it.
My daughter gave me a sign, where she quoted from the Talmud. She put it up in front of my desk. It says, "I have not wasted my day." That message is very important to me. What have I done that's good, who have I helped?
It's a message, Taber says, that fits well with the Christmas season. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.