Published December 11. 2009 4:00AM Updated December 11. 2009 7:52PM
East Hampton - On a handshake 32 years ago, Peter Bergan promised the former owner of his 50-acre property that he'd do his best to keep the land as a farm.
Bergan, a 6-foot-6, broad-shouldered former truck driver ready with a shrug and a smile for the frequent Paul Bunyan comparisons he hears, has kept his word. With deed restrictions, he's made sure no one will ever be able to change that.
His particular brand of farming, though, probably isn't what the former owner expected. Instead of corn or apples, or dairy cows, chickens and pigs, which Bergan and his wife Arlene had until 1984, Peaceful Hill Farm's essence and livelihood come from a slower, more majestic crop: trees.
"Here's a nice red oak, straight, with a nice crown," said Bergan, stopping along the snow-covered gravel road he cut himself through his forest to pat the shaft of a specimen he estimated to be 50 years old. "But that birch over there, it's dying. That's firewood."
Last month, at a statewide forestry conference, Bergan was named Connecticut Tree Farmer of the Year by the state's Tree Farm System, accepting his award after effusive praise from state officials with a straightforward "thank you."
The award, not given out in several years, was presented in recognition of the way the 66-year-old Bergan manages his own land, as well as his participation in local and statewide conservation and forestry groups. Several years ago, he put his land into the Federal Department of Agriculture's Forest Legacy Program, which is designed to protect working forests and excludes his land from any future development.
Bergan's forest, the speakers noted, has more conservation value than its relatively small size might suggest. It adjoins the 9,000-acre Meshomasic State Forest, and helps keep unbroken a significant forest block wildlife need to maintain healthy populations.
"We accommodate the wildlife just by being here," Bergan said after pointing out a rocky ledge where rattlesnakes are known to den and a pond he dug himself where fish and waterfowl live. "There's bear and moose in these woods. And I try to leave some of the dying trees as den trees for the woodpeckers and chipmunks."
Most of Peaceful Hill farm is managed hardwood forest - red, white and chestnut oak, black and yellow birch, sugar maple, hickory and some white pine he planted to rejuvenate a scrubby hillside. Two stands for hunters have been built in the forest, since, he said, hunting is the most practical way to limit deer populations, which can do a lot of damage to young trees.
"You're managing the forest so that the mature trees are seeding new forest underneath," he said.
The land was heavily logged in the 1960s and Bergan has done only one limited harvest of lumber-grade mature trees since he's owned it. He figures his forest won't be ready for another for several more years. He does remove about eight to 10 cords worth of diseased, dying or crowded trees every year, and uses all the wood himself to fuel the outdoor furnace that heats his home and barns, all of which he built himself.
"It's not free," he said, standing beside stacks of logs next to his wood furnace. "I have to work for it."
This time of year, Bergan is spending little time in the hardwood forest. Instead, he's mostly found around the "cash crop" that grows on the lower seven acres - Christmas trees - that take an average of 10 years to reach saleable size.
On the weekends leading up to Dec. 25, up to 200 cars per day drive to his farm. There, families are loaned hand saws and carts and wander through the rows looking to cut and haul away the perfect tree to fill a living room corner or a spot by the picture window. Bergan waits near the parking lot to put each tree on the Shakee, a machine that agitates off loose needles, then a bailer that wraps each tree in twine for easy transport.
"What kind of tree are you looking for?" Bergan asked Elaine and Andy Santos of East Hartford one day this week, handing them a saw.
"Fraser fir," Elaine Santos replied. "About six and a half feet tall instead of short and stocky."
"The forest is full of them," Bergan replied, gesturing to suggest an area where they might start their search.
Working in a back room of a solar-paneled barn, Bergan and his wife also make dozens of cemetery boxes, "kissing balls" and circular and candy cane-shaped wreaths for sale from bows cut from their trees. In the front of the barn, permeated by the smell of evergreens, they also sell ornaments and craft items, and a model train and village with a replica of their farm chugs along a high ledge.
A spur-of-the-moment decision, Bergan said, moved the farm out of livestock and into Christmas tree farming. One night after an extra long day behind the wheel of a freight truck, he came home to find none of the four Bergan children, now adults, had milked the cows.
"I said, 'That's it, we're going to grow Christmas trees,' " he recalled. "I didn't know a fir from a pine. I remember planting our first seedlings during a snowstorm in April."
Now Bergan not only knows a Scotch pine from a blue spruce, but also about the "up and coming" varieties - such as Turkish and Nordmann firs - and the trendy ones, such as the bluish-white Concolor fir, known as a favorite of Martha Stewart.
"People come from miles for the Concolors," Bergan said. "I pride myself in trying to grow new varieties. We've got Turkish fir, Douglas fir, grand fir, Concolors, Fraser fir, Canaan fir, white pine, Scotch pine, corkbark pine. What grows best here are white spruce, but they don't make the best Christmas tree."