Monday, December 02, 2013

White House Holiday Tale: The First Lady, Two Champion Farmers, & The Official Christmas Tree

Farmers John Wyckoff and Chris Botek with Mrs. Obama
History in action: Behind the scenes during the selection of the all-important Blue Room tree, the centerpiece of the White House holiday decor... 
Washington, DC -  Volunteers invited from across the US filled the White House this weekend, working virtually around the clock to rapidly transform the mansion into a sparkling wonderland for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama's fifth holiday spectacular.

Mrs. Obama will unveil her holiday theme this Wednesday, kicking off three weeks of non-stop entertaining that will begin with an afternoon dedicated to military families.  

But behind the festivities is something of an historic moment for Mrs. Obama and the Official White House Christmas Tree, the giant stunner featured in the Blue Room as the centerpiece of the decor.
Since 1966, the Blue Room tree has been gifted to the White House by the top tree grower of the year, the farmer named Grand Champion in the National Christmas Tree Association's (NCTA) annual Christmas Tree contest, a challenge among state-level winners.  

But last Friday, for the first time in at least two decades, there were two farmers on hand to deliver a glorious 19-foot Douglas Fir to Mrs. Obama during a ceremony by the North Portico.  It arrived on a red and green carriage pulled by high-stepping Clydesdale horses, led by a top-hatted coachman.

Mrs. Obama was joined by NCTA's 2013 champion, John Wyckoff of Wyckoff’s Christmas Tree Farm in Belvedere, New Jersey, and 2010 champion Chris Botek, of Crystal Spring Tree Farm in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, as she examined the fragrant tree, so long it draped beyond the confines of the carriage.

As this year's NCTA champ, Wyckoff should have been the farmer who grew the Blue Room tree.  

But instead, it was a tree grown by Botek that was strapped to the carriage.

"This is the best part of the holiday season, when the tree comes," said Mrs. Obama, joined by First Daughters Malia and Sasha and dogs Bo and Sunny.

"It looks good, it looks beautiful,"  Mrs. Obama said.

"Love it," Malia chimed in.

NCTA spokesman Rick Dungey told Obama Foodorama that in his 16-year tenure with the organization, he couldn't remember two farmers being on hand to present a tree to a First Lady, and added that it was possibly the first time ever.  

NCTA has a list of the farmers who have grown the presentation tree, not of those who have been at the ceremony, because usually they are one and the same.  The East Wing didn't have the answer, either.

The unusual moment spotlights both the many challenges of farming and the seriousness with which the White House regards the selection of the all-important Blue Room tree.  

Mrs. Obama gives the thumbs-up to the tree
2013 champ Wyckoff's family has been farming on land that has sweeping views of the Delaware Water Gap since 1839, and he is the sixth generation to work the land.  This year Wyckoff has 65,000 Christmas trees of all ages, shapes and sizes growing on 170 acres, he told Obama Foodorama.

But when the White House tree selection team--including Grounds Superintendent Dale Haney, Supervisory Horticulturalist Jim Adams, and Chief Usher Angella Reid visited Wyckoff's farm on Oct. 30, after roaming the fields they didn't find a tree that would meet Blue Room requirements, Wyckoff said.   

Haney, who has been at the White House for almost four decades, could probably recite the Blue Room stats in his sleep.  The center drawing room on the State Floor needs a tree that can be cut to 18.5 feet to fit under the ceiling, where the chandelier has been removed.  But it also needs to have branches that hang just so, to allow guests to circle the entire room to view it from all sides.

This year's tree will sparkle with lights and many, many handmade ornaments provided by military families, paying homage to military homecomings as Mrs. Obama again honors the Armed Forces.

Wyckoff said he had just two possible 19-foot contenders to offer the White House team.  At eighteen years old, both trees started to grow when President Obama was still a community organizer.

"Neither fit the bill," Wyckoff said, with the White House team "afraid the ornaments where going to pull the branches down too much."

Instead, the White House team selected four of his other trees, ten-foot Douglas Firs that are eleven years old, which will be displayed in other rooms.  All four were from the same field, Wyckoff said.

"Unfortunately we couldn't find the perfect fit for the very specific needs of the Blue Room Tree, but are excited to pick out and welcome other trees from the Wyckoff Christmas Tree Farm to the White House this holiday season," Haney said.  

"We...look forward to having their trees decorate the White House as a part of this year's holiday celebrations."

Wyckoff said he is not at all upset that he didn't have a tree for the Blue Room, though his title as Grand Champion in theory assured him a special place in American history as the farmer who grew the 2013 Official White House Christmas Tree.  

Instead, Wyckoff was sanguine.  Growing Christmas trees is far more labor intensive than most people realize, a years-long project, Wyckoff said.  And 19-footers are a "niche" market, he said, so he just didn't have many trees.  Most of his business is devoted to 8-12 footers for use in homes with ceilings far lower than those in the stately White House.

"It's not like 19-foot trees are readily available," Wyckoff said.  "There's not that much of a market for us--it's a niche market."

And besides, Wyckoff has earned the top honors in his profession.  Before becoming Grand Champion, he was named New Jersey state champion nine times, including in 2011, '12, and '13.   He's also the first farmer from his state to ever win NCTA's prestigious top prize--and it was the first time he'd even entered the contest.

"No New Jersey growers have ever accomplished this," Wyckoff said.  "It's an honor not only for our farm, but to our state, and our association of growers, who are a tight-knit group."

Having the honor of presenting the tree to Mrs. Obama was just as exciting without having actually grown it, Wyckoff said.  He did all the speaking during the presentation ceremony by the North Portico.  His kids had been looking forward to it for months.

Wyckoff is also the man who suggested the White House team contact Botek to look for a tree for the Blue Room.  The two men are friends, and their farms are located about an hour away from each other, across state lines.

"I know John well," Botek told Obama Foodorama. "I was the second person John called when he won the national competition." 

Unlike Wyckoff, Botek had a fairly large selection of big trees on the family's Warren county spread in Pennsylvania, where they own and lease about 250 acres.  They marked their 50th anniversary this year.  

As 2010 NCTA champion, it was Botek's Douglas Fir that was featured in Mrs. Obama's Blue Room display, so he had a fairly good idea of what the White House team was looking for this year.

"I had several picture-perfect trees," Botek said, and admitted that his fellow farmers regard him as something of a gambler for focusing on growing massive trees for the "niche" market. 

"You're at the mercy of the weather, of so many things you have no control over," said Botek, who has a degree in Plant Science from Penn State.

The trees are "incredibly heavy, they're hard to harvest, you get one ice storm and a broken branch and your tree goes to hell," Botek said.

The White House team wanted "a certain look, a certain shape" for the Blue Room tree, Botek said, and they spent a lot of time surveying his selection.  

The Douglas Fir they finally chose for Mrs. Obama was still in the field where it was first planted in 1996 when it was three years old, Botek said.

The tree was 21 years old when Botek cut it down last Monday, Nov. 25, carefully felling it right onto the back of a flat-bed truck, where it was baled for delivery.   It arrived at the White House the next day, delivered to the North Lawn in the midst of a rainstorm. 

National Park Service groundskeepers threw a massive plastic tarp over the tree as they prepared to store it ahead of Friday's ceremonial presentation to Mrs. Obama, which included a military horn ensemble playing "O Christmas Tree."

This year Botek also has other 19-footers featured in Christmas exhibitions around his region:  Two are at the Rotunda in the Pennsylvania State Capital, two are at Regents Square, and one is in Scranton.  Another two trees are in the town square in Wilmington, Delaware, he said.

Botek's tree being installed in the Blue Room on Friday
The Botek family has had three Blue Room trees...
Botek and his family are history makers, too.  In addition to his tree in the Blue Room in 2010, a tree grown by Botek's parents Francis and Margaret Botek, NCTA champs for 2006, starred in the Blue Room that year.  That's a total of three Blue Room trees; only one other farming couple has beat that record since 1966--Eric and Gloria Sundback of West Virginia.  

When the Sundbacks' tree starred in Mrs. Obama's 2009 Blue Room display, it was the fourth time they'd had pride of place at the White House.  Eric Sundback is now in his eighties, and still farming.

"He has a couple years on me," Botek joked.  "But I have time to catch him"in the race to have the most Christmas trees ever at the White House.

In 2010, Botek had a total of 28 trees at the White House, he said.  While the Blue Room tree is gifted by the year's NCTA champion farmer, all others the White House selects are purchased. 

Both Botek and Wyckoff had their families on hand for the ceremony with Mrs. Obama.  Wyckoff was accompanied by his wife and kids, while Botek was accompanied by his champion parents, both now 73, his girlfriend, and his children.

"It's an amazing honor from our little area of Pennsylvania," Botek said.  "It's nice to have national recognition like this."

Wyckoff was equally thrilled.

"It's quite an honor to present the tree to the First Lady," he said.  "My kids are incredibly excited."

"We're honored to have the tree," Mrs. Obama told Wyckoff as she thanked both farmers.

Mrs. Obama waves at the press at the end of the ceremony
The tree was immediately installed in the Blue Room after the North Portico ceremony, with a scaffold erected in order to decorate.  The other Christmas trees, also delivered last Tuesday, were put into place around the mansion, including in the Oval Office and in the Private Residence.

The First Lady will unveil her holiday theme this Wednesday, Dec. 4th at 1:30 PM when she welcomes military families for the first viewing of the decorations.

Mrs. Obama will deliver remarks in the East Room, and then ask military children to join her in the State Dining Room as Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and chief Floral Designer Laura Dowling demonstrate holiday crafts and treats. 


*White House photos & video