HANCOCK COUNTY — Eighteen-month-old Cooper had the time of his life on Sunday, gliding along the ground between the fir trees at Sambol’s Tree Farm, riding a black plastic sleigh designed for carrying fresh-cut trees back from the field.

The young boy and his parents, Matt and Erin of nearby Lawrence, were among the hundreds of families making their way to Hancock County tree farms this past weekend to select the perfect Christmas tree.

Sunny blue skies brought the crowds out in droves on Friday and Saturday, but even the rainy weather Sunday couldn’t deter a number of people from trekking out in the fields in search of a tree.

Lance Sambol, owner of Sambol’s Tree Farm in Fortville, said the weekend after Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year at his 18-acre farm, which sits along Ind. 9 just north of Maxwell.

“We sold about 280 trees on both Friday and Saturday,” said Sambol, taking a quick break from greeting guests and supervising his crew on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Watching families stroll through the fields in search of the perfect tree is the highlight of his year, said Sambol, for whom managing the 18-acre tree farm is a year-round job.

“You get a short break in January and February, but in the spring you’re back to planting and caring for the trees all year long. It’s basically like having an 18-acre garden with 10,000 plants,” said Sambol, who replants between 16,000 and 17,000 trees each year.

It takes about seven years for each tree to grow to maturity, which means seven years of planting, watering, pruning and nurturing each one until it’s ready to be chopped down and loaded onto a vehicle, on its journey to taking center stage in someone’s home.

Since COVID hit in 2020, Sambol has sold trees by appointment only on the first two days after Thanksgiving each year, a process he said has made things so much more manageable and enjoyable for both customers and staff.

“In 2019 we sold 445 trees on Friday (after Thanksgiving) alone, which overwhelms our farm and our staff,” he said. “By taking appointments only those first two days, it’s a much better experience for everyone. Our parking lot fills up and empties out and we do it all over again.”

It was a busy weekend at all three Christmas tree farms in Hancock County, including Piney Acres in Fortville and the Lost Forty Tree Farm in Greenfield.

All three farms give customers the chance to select a pre-cut tree or cut down a tree on their own.

Sambol said his farm provides everything you need to cut down a tree and take it home, including hand saws, kneeling pads and sleds for pulling the tree out of the field.

Once cut, his crew sets each tree on a shaker which vibrates the tree to shake out loose needles, then binds the tree up in twine and loads it on top of each customer’s vehicle.

Little Cooper’s mom, Erin, said her family has been chopping down their own Christmas tree each year since she was a little girl.

Growing up in South Bend, the family would head to a local tree farm to have a tractor take them out in the fields, where they’d spend time picking out the perfect tree.

“It’s such a big part of Christmas to me,” she said. “I can’t imagine Christmas without the smell of a fresh-cut tree. Going to pick it out is just the perfect way to kick off the holiday season.”

Sometimes toddlers have a way of changing tradition, however. The chilly rain on Sunday forced the family to reconsider chopping down their own tree, after perusing a number of trees in the field, and they opted to take home a pre-cut tree instead.

“There’s such a variety of great trees here to choose from, but it just seemed easier this year to go home with a pre-cut tree,” Erin said as her little boy splashed around the field in his yellow rain slicker, winter overalls and black snow boots.

Before heading home with their tree, the family spent some time warming up by the roaring fire in the farm’s shelter house, which provides customers a cozy respite from the cold.

Sambol said he loves seeing families pause to sit by the fire and sip hot cider and cocoa, which is sold at a food truck on site the weekend after Thanksgiving, along with pulled pork and other snacks.

Posing for pictures inside the red sleigh is also a big draw for families, he said, as Cooper grinned while sitting between his parents inside the sleigh.

While traffic typically slows somewhat after Thanksgiving weekend, Sambol expects hundreds of more families to stop by his farm in the coming weeks.

Even though he’s been planting “as many trees as the land allows” since 2008, Sambol thought there was a chance that all the field trees would be claimed by the end of this past weekend.

The rainy Sunday, however, left many trees standing, and Sambol said those who miss out on cutting down trees will still have plenty of pre-cut trees to choose from, all tagged by size and price ranging from $91 for a 7-foot-tree to $199 for a 10-footer. Fresh-cut trees range in price from $59 to $149, depending on quality and size.

If watered properly, Sambol said a fir tree can last from Thanksgiving all the way to New Year’s Day. “Spruce don’t last quite as long, so those are cut later in the season,” he said.

Sambol never fancied himself a tree expert before opening his own farm 14 years ago.

He previously owned a par three golf course and driving range in McCordsville, but sold the land in 2007 to developers who used the 36-acre space to build a Meijer store.

Sambol was pondering his next business venture that year when he saw a live holiday broadcast from Dull’s Tree Farm in Thorntown on the news. “They did a panoramic shot of all the activity going on there, and I told my wife we needed to go check this place out,” he said.

Within a year, they had purchased the 18-acre plot of land that would become Sambol’s Tree Farm just south of Ind. 234, which at the time was an abandoned corn field with eight-foot-tall weeds.

“I just took a leap of faith and did it. We totally started from scratch,” said Sambol, who hopes to eventually build a home on the property someday.

Sambol said he eventually got to know the other tree growers in the county, who encouraged him to join the Indiana Christmas Tree Growers Association.

“It’s been a great resource for me,” he said as his crew continued to shake the needles from trees before binding them up with twine on Sunday afternoon, to the delight of families preparing to go home and decorate for the holidays.

As they make their way down the gravel drive while exiting the farm, visitors drive between two fields of 18-inch tall tree sprouts, which will be nurtured over the next seven years until it’s their time to go home.

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