SPENCERVILLE - Imagine spending a lifetime bringing the joy of Christmas to other people's homes. Eugene "Pud" Johnston has been doing that and more for almost 70 years.
Johnston, a fit and enthusiastic 95-year-old tree farmer, owns 300 acres on Porter Road, just off County Road 44. Every year he opens the farm to people searching for the perfect Christmas tree. Johnston Brothers Tree Farm is known across Eastern Ontario as the place to go when the holidays come around.
"We bought the tree farm in 1952 for $6.00 an acre," says Johnston. "We will officially open again this year for the Christmas season on November 28; we are scrambling to get ready - we bring people in; we offer wagon rides, and you can cut your own tree."
He and his wife Sheila along with their son Kerry were at the farm last week to explain just how much work it takes to properly maintain a tree farm, especially one of this size. Kerry works here full time with his father, and his two teenaged sons work after school and on weekends. In a usual year, the family would bring in more workers throughout the year, but due to 2020's pandemic it was hard to find people to work for them. They have a small but trusted group of friends helping them get ready for this's year's holiday season.
"There is more work here than people realize," says Johnston, a professional forester who graduated the University of Toronto in 1949. "Planting, pruning and grass cutting are just part of it. This isn't a seasonal business."
Because some of the acreage is planted in national forest and part is devoted to the Johnston's thriving landscape business, there are always trees to look after. Most are balsams and some are Fraser fir. Another portion is grown for separate cutting and the family has a sawmill on site. Many are grown to perfect proportions and then sold to residential and commercial landowners. The Johnstons have the trucks and equipment needed to dig the tree and replant it on the new site.
As well, the Johnstons grow trees which eventually become hydro poles. It can take as long as 65 years for a tree to grow to the height needed for this.
Commercial Christmas tree orders begin in the fall, long before the average person thinks about putting up their own seasonal display. Some orders are placed as early as July. Wholesale trees are cut and transported as far away as Strathcona, Woodstock, and throughout the Ottawa valley. This means long days of cutting and loading for the Johnston family.
Christmas trees are often in short supply throughout North America, says Johnston. The reason for that is found in the fact that some years - he cites 1962 - there is a surplus, so less trees are planted the following years. Johnston planted 45,000 trees following the surplus of '62.
Born and raised in Prescott, Pud and Sheila live on Blakey's Point, west of the town. They are proud of the fact that theirs is a sustainable business and encourage people to buy live Christmas trees.
"An artificial tree is a petroleum product which will never break down," says Kerry. "People say they don't want to cut a real tree for Christmas, but for every real one we cut, many more are planted," he explains.
It's obvious by their enthusiasm that Pud Johnston and his family love what they do. And when asked about the secret to his long and healthy life, he credits fresh air and fitness. He spends almost every day outdoors, year 'round, working with his trees.
"I worked for the government for 30 years and have been retired almost as long as I worked for them. I was born and raised near here and even though I worked around the province, I always knew I'd come back here - this is home, and this is where my trees are."
So, come the end of November, take a drive out to Porter Road and meet him for yourself. He knows more about tree farming than any textbook or Google search ever will, and even though he's busy, he always has time to talk.
You'll find him with a pruner in his pocket, on the hunt for that stray branch or tip, carefully crafting his trees to the perfect size and shape. Some are table-top sized, some are average height, and some are over nine feet tall, but all are perfect and ready to grace your home this holiday season.