The Life Of A Christmas Tree Farmer (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

The Life Of A Christmas Tree Farmer

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
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

00:00:23
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

00:00:35
It smells great here. What are you selling?

MR. MIKE TABER

00:00:39
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:52
Taber grew up in a low-income housing project in Brooklyn, nowhere near a farm.

TABER

00:00:56
Yes, I grew up in Fort Green, in Brooklyn near the Navy Yard where there are no trees.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:02
He got a masters degree in anthropology and then came to D.C. in the '60s, looking for a job in the public schools.

TABER

00:01:08
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:36
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.

TABER

00:01:48
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:55
And his Christmas trees, they're not your typical trees.

TABER

00:01:59
Let's go walk over.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:59
They're not perfect.

TABER

00:02:02
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?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:09
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.

TABER

00:02:24
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:36
Taber says the typical perfectly pruned tree is forcing life to imitate plastic, which is not what he is about.

TABER

00:02:43
You know, we have this little label, sustainably raised trees.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:46
And what does that mean?

TABER

00:02:48
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:05
Is there certain amount of irony that a Jewish kid from Brooklyn ended up growing Christmas trees?

TABER

00:03:11
Well, I'm sure there is. We did put one daughter through Jewish day school from the Christmas tree money.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:17
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.

TABER

00:03:25
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:52
As Taber speaks he spots an old man pocket an organic brownie from his stand and hobble off.

TABER

00:03:59
You know, if it helped that guy to take that dessert, that's fine.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:03
It entails some sacrifices to be sustainable it sounds like.

TABER

00:04:06
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:17
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.

TABER

00:04:28
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?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:42
It's a message, Taber says, that fits well with the Christmas season. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
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