Blickenstaff told his brother-in-law he wasn't managing the farm well, that he needed to prune and weed if he ever wanted to sell the trees.
"He was offended," Blickenstaff said. "He told me if I could do better, he'd order me trees next year."
So the following year, Blickenstaff - who had a background in marketing and a full-time job with the federal government - found himself with 1,000 Christmas trees. He planted them on a small 2 1/2-acre farm plot that belonged to his wife's parents in 1981.
He learned all he could about Christmas trees from the University of Maryland Extension and from "anyone who knew anything about growing Christmas trees." By 1986, the farm was ready for retail. He sold 100 trees.
Sales grew at a considerable rate, doubling annually for several years before leveling off. Eventually, the business became unable to meet its market share on the small farm, so Blickenstaff expanded.
Today, Mount Hope Farms includes two farms - one 55 acres and the other seven - plus two other locations under contract. Blickenstaff, 63, lives at the main farm five miles west of Hagerstown and bustles to keep up with demand.
Over the years, Blickenstaff said, he's become adept at predicting the number and types of trees he will sell. But he does recall one exception.
"I've only been fooled once in 23 years of retail. It was because of Martha Stewart," he said. "A customer came to the farm asking for an 'el natural' tree."
Blickenstaff said he had no idea what that meant. He asked the customer to take him out to the field and show him. The tree the person led him to surprised him.
"By old standards, it would have been considered a ragged tree. Most people would not have even considered it a specimen to put in the house," Blickenstaff said. "But Martha Stewart had run an article and done a TV show promoting a more natural tree. Evidently, she had quite a following."
Numerous customers seeking "el natural" trees followed. Ever since, Blickenstaff leaves the trees on an acre or two of his farm lightly sheared and less pruned.
"When people ask for 'el natural,' I send them right to that field," he said.
Denny Kauffman and his wife, Lue Ann, own the Kauffman Family Christmas Tree Farm in Waynesboro, Pa. Like Blickenstaff, Kauffman initially got the idea to farm Christmas trees from his in-laws, and began planting in 1981. When he bought land, he was unsure how he would use it.
"My father-in-law said, 'What about Christmas trees?'" Kauffman said. "He did it on his land, then we did on ours."
Kauffman, 57, works as a surveyor, and business slows down during winter months. Christmas tree farming provides income during that season, but requires maintenance throughout the year. Kauffman said the work suits him, as he likes being outdoors.
"Usually mid- to late March or the beginning of April, we begin planting seedlings. June, July, we trim the pine trees, and about the end of August, September, we trim the fir trees," he said. "In spring, after we plant, we usually spray the rows for weeds, and in summer we mow between rows."
Kauffman said one of his favorite parts of the business is seeing families and friends come together.
"Sometimes people bring one pickup truck and a couple car or vanloads of people. They'll all go out in the fields and choose their trees, and come back and pile them all in one truck. They'll do it as a big family," he said.
Kauffman said he's observed that sometimes people with the smallest cars seem to choose the largest trees.
"We'll tie the tree to the car, then we need to hold up the limbs just so people can get in. It's funny to see," he said.By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer
John Stotelmyer shears trees Friday at Mount Hope Farms west of Hagerstown. Tree farm owner Dan Blickenstaff said they lightly shear some of the trees in December to meet some customer requests for more naturally shaped trees.
Real Christmas tree facts
There are about 25 million to 30 million real Christmas trees sold in the United States each year.
There are close to 350 million real Christmas trees growing on Christmas tree farms in the United States.
Real Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states and Canada.
There are more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the United States.
For every real Christmas tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring.
There are about 350,000 acres in production for growing Christmas trees in the United States.
There are nearly 15,000 farms growing Christmas trees in the United States, and more than 100,000 people are employed full time or part time in the industry.
It can take as many as 15 years to grow a tree of typical height - 6 to 7 feet - or as few as four years, but the average growing time is seven years.
The top Christmas tree-producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.
The most common Christmas tree species are balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine.
- Source: National Christmas Tree Association