When people talk about the magic of the season, they surely must be talking about Maple Crest Farm in West Newbury. It is hard to get more magical than a Christmas tree farm in December, set by the water on scenic farmland where lights sparkle and cut-your-own Christmas trees are plentiful.
John Elwell and his wife, Carol, are retired from careers in education, but that’s about the only way the word retirement applies to them. About one minute after setting foot on Maple Crest Farm, all of the work that goes into owning and operating a farm like this is apparent. The Elwells don’t just grow Christmas trees: Maple Crest is a working farm that has been in the family since 1917.
Cutting your own Christmas tree at Maple Crest is “very much a family event,” says Elwell. “We have wagon rides, a firepit where we toast marshmallows, free hot chocolate, and wooden Santas in the fields. We have a large wood Christmas tree for photo ops, where families take photos year after year.” It is truly a beloved tradition for many local families.
So what does it take to grow a Christmas tree? For starters, you need 8 to12 years. Every year, Elwell plants about 1,000 seedlings, each about a foot and a half tall, which will eventually grow into Christmas trees. Elwell purchases seedlings from a variety of locations including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Canada, and Vermont. Christmas tree farming involves planning, and the farm’s order for 2024 seedlings has already been placed.
“The farm definitely keeps me young,” says Elwell, who adds that he is lucky to have help, including from his grandson, who often shears trees into their famous Christmas tree shape (they don’t just grow that way on their own!). Each holiday season, the farm sells about 250 to 300 Christmas trees, and each tree sold is replaced with at least two new trees, which helps reduce pollution and provides an environment for wildlife. By cutting your own Christmas tree, you are helping to support local farmers and also reducing transportation emissions resulting from transporting trees from another location.
Maple Crest Farm has an enviable selection of trees in their four fields including Canaan, Douglas Fir, Concolor, Fraser Fir, and Norway Spruce, some of which grow over ten feet tall. The farm provides the saws, wagons, and twine, and you can expect a local student Maple Crest has hired to help wrap up your tree. Elwell says that every year he looks forward to one of his favorite seasonal sights: adults carrying the trees over their shoulders while children are pulled in the wagons meant for the trees.
Elwell was involved with the founding of the Newburyport Education Foundation (NEF) and was previously an assistant principal and principal for 19 years at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School, followed by two years as interim principal at Newburyport High School. Given his history and the high value he places on education, the way he has carried this over to the farm is not surprising. Since 2020, two local schools have taken up residence on the property, Heartwood Nature School and River Valley Charter School, which visits four days a week. “Being able to have kids here to learn and be outside means so much,” says Elwell. “I love having them here. They call me Farmer John, and it ’s just great to see them.” Other schools also frequent the farm for field trips. Elwell is a member of the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards and cares deeply about the state of the environment.
Over the years the farm has also played host to student interns from Newburyport High School who have helped with cataloging types of trees, including a project where they identified trees and came up with signage for the nearby Indian Hill Reservoir Tree Walk. In addition to Christmas trees, the farm grows strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, pumpkins, and gourds, and Elwell emphasizes the importance of Mother Nature’s cooperation when it comes to growing both crops and Christmas trees.