Remember that scene from the Waltons’ television show, the one where John-Boy journeyed up the mountain to find and cut the perfect Christmas tree for the farmhouse?
Well, of course we aren’t the Waltons; we don’t even have a mountain in the Athens area. Our farmhouse may be a tract house in a local subdivision. But we can participate in an old-fashioned Christmas tree-cutting tradition with our family by visiting a local Christmas tree farm.
One such business is Drury’s Christmas Tree Farm on Robert Hardeman Road near Winterville. Liston Drury, a retired poultry research engineer, and wife Dot, a homemaker and active community volunteer, have lived on their picturesque 60-acre farm since 1959.
Both Drurys have fond memories of growing up in South Georgia and cutting their own long-needled pine Christmas trees from nearby woods. After raising cattle for several years, they decided to switch to Christmas tree farming in 1985.
Dot and Liston begin their selling season each year on Thanksgiving Day. The air is nippy and scented with the pleasant fragrance of cedar and pine as carloads of people, mostly families with children, drive up. It’s a tradition for many area families to come to the farm together or to meet there to cut the Christmas tree that will be the focus of their holiday celebration, says Dot.
Bundled in a warm coat and scarf, Dot greets visitors and directs them to the parking area. Her friendly face glows a frost-chapped red as she hands out saws and chats with customers. Many are neighbors and friends who bring video cameras to capture their children’s excitement at finding and cutting the perfect Christmas tree.
Not all of the Drurys’s 7,000 trees are for sale; many of them are in various stages of cultivation, ranging from seedlings to eight-foot tall, classically-shaped Christmas trees ready for decoration.
“I tell visitors which trees they can choose from, and I offer advice on how to pick a good tree if they ask,” Dot says, gesturing toward rows of Leyland cypress, white and Virginia pines and red cedars that fan out in a panoramic view of Christmas future across the Drurys’ farmland.
Dot also tells customers there is a tag on each tree that lists the variety, height and price, “so they don’t have to wonder if it will fit into their house or how much it costs,” she says. “I think our customers like having the measurement on the tree, though some don’t pay any attention to the size. They just buy what they like.”
Some customers buy more than one tree, according to Dot. They may buy a children’s tree for the living room and a smaller, more inexpensive tree for the den.
“Then they come back the next day with somebody else,” says Dot. “And they just keep coming back until the whole family gets a tree from us.”
The Drurys also sell several types of Christmas stands, and they will drill a hole in a tree to fit pin-type stands. They offer tree baling (wrapping). tree removal bags and power shaking with their shaking machine to removed dead needles, though this treatment is unnecessary for the Leland cypress, their most popular tree.
The Leyland cypress also is the best kind of tree for allergy sufferers, notes Dot, because it emits less pollen.
Listen believes the main reason people come to a Christmas tree farm is for the adventure. “The old-fashioned pioneer spirit is still alive in many of us,” he says. “People like walking around and looking at all the different trees, choosing the one they like best, then changing their minds and deciding again, then cutting i t and knowing that it’s fresh.
“When you buy a tree from a lot or a store you usually don’t know how long it’s been cut. On a Christmas tree farm, you know when it was cut because you did it yourself. You know it’s as fresh as it can be,” Liston says.
The tradition of a decorated Christmas tree in the United States may date back to the Revolutionary War, when homesick Hessian troops cut and decorated fir trees as was their German custom, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Home and Garden Bulletin Number 189.”
Christmas tree farming in Georgia began in the early 1980s when more than 500 Christmas tree farms were established on nearly 7,000 acres. But today, only about half of those farms are still in operation, say representatives of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.
One reason for this decline is the mistaken assumption by some entrepreneurs that Christmas tree farming might be a way to earn a quick $10,000 each year, working only from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve.
“But Christmas tree farming is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” emphasizes Liston. Since it takes from four to 10 years for most Christmas trees to mature into a salable commodity, depending upon variety and other variables, for the first few years Christmas tree farmers have no income from their trees.
The Drurys have made a net profit for only the past three years because of development costs and the lengthy growing period; and they say they would have to plant many more trees if they depended on Christmas tree farming for their living, rather than as a supplement to their retirement income.
In addition to delayed profits, there is a tremendous amount of work involved in getting Christmas trees ready to market. Most of the trees have to be pruned twice a year after they are two years old.
“There is an art to trimming the trees,” says Liston. “There are general guidelines for t he ideal tree shape, but not all trees will conform to the ideal. We actually create the look people expect by pruning and shaping the trees.”
Other steps to getting a Christmas tree ready for harvesting include applying a spray to help keep the trees green and a cleanup spray to kill insects that might otherwise show up in a customer’s home. “Sprays are also used to control weeds and tree diseases,” says Liston.
Another step involves putting price tags on trees. Rather than charging one price for any tree as some farms do, the Drurys prefer to price their trees individually, which takes judgement and experience. Liston prices his trees based on how tall the tree is, how pretty it is and what type of tree it is.
“A seven-foot tall tree might be anywehre from $15 to $30, depending on how attractive it is and the variety,” he says. ” We charge more for Leyland cypresses, which are premium trees.” Generally, the Drury’s trees run from $15 to $35, which is typical of the prides at many Christmas tree farms.
“Our prices compare favorably to those of trees on Christmas tree lots,” observes Liston. “Our trees are a local product. On lots, virtually all of the trees are imported from somewhere outside Georgia. The most popular lot tree is the Frazier fir and they can’t be grown here because of our climate. Most of them come from North Carolina.”
“Choose-and-cut” Christmas tree farms are quite popular with many of today’s families. This year approximately 35 million homes will feature a real tree as the focal point of the Christmas celebration. Of this number, an estimated 350,000 Christmas trees will be cut from Georgia’s “choose-and-cut” farms.
However, there are staunch proponents of artificial trees who make a tradition of unpacking the old fake fir from the box every year and putting it together, rather than cutting a live tree from a farm.
The Drurys believe these individuals are missing something. Real trees that have fresh, woodsy aroma that evoke childhood memories of Santa and Rudolph and of Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas,” the Drurys point out.
“So far we’ve not heard of anybody being able to duplicate the aroma of a real Christmas tree, though they’ve tried,” says Liston.
Most artificial Christmas trees will last for many seasons while live trees are used one season, then discarded. Because of this, Christmas tree farmers must deal with what they call the misconception that cutting a live tree is somehow environmentally detrimental.
“Some people say, ‘Well, you’re cutting a tree and you’re leaving the land bare,'” says Liston. “But we don’t leave our fields bare long. We plant more trees, two for every tree cut, so we’ve got the ground protected all the time from erosion.”
Live Christmas trees offer other advantages as well. They provide a home for wildlife and they absorb carbon dioxide and other gases to create fresh oxygen. According to experts, one acre of Christmas trees produces the daily oxygen required for 18 people.
Using that calculation, the Drurys’ Christmas tree farm produces enough oxygen for about 1,000 people, almost every man, woman and child living in the nearby town of Winterville. The one million acres of Christmas trees growing on 12,000 farms all across the United States provide oxygen for 18 million people every day.
“A live tree from our farm is recyclable,” says Liston. Locally, the Athens-Clarke County Clean and Beautiful Commission, along with several private businesses, sponsors a Christmas tree recycling program after the holidays.
If a homeowner prefers to recycle at home, real trees make excellent mulch for the garden. The trunk can be burned in the fireplace after removing branches and needles. Fishing enthusiasts can weight the base of the tree and sink it in a pond to attract fish.
In addition to the Drurys’ farm, some other area “choose-and-cut” Christmas tree farms include: the OK Farm and Eastside Ornamentals, Athens-Clarke County; Jack’s Creek, Bostwick; C&T Christmas Trees, Jackson County; Townley’s Tree Farms Inc., Oconee County; Lee’s Tree Farm and Witt’s Christmas Trees, Watkinsville; December Farms, Gainesville; Beck’s Christmas Tree Farm, Bowersville; Callaway Christmas Farm, Hartwell; and Oak Grove Farm, Colbert.
“People go to different Christmas Tree farms for different experiences,” says Liston. Many farms have trailer or wagon rides, free candy canes, boughs or greenery, hot apple cider and other specialities for a customer’s enjoyment.
Portable restroom facilities also are located on some farms during the selling season. Call ahead to determine exactly what amenities a Christmas Tree Farm offers.
About one-half of a Christmas tree farm’s customers come from within a 15-mile radius of the farm. Another 25 percent will live between 15 and 30 miles away. The rest will be mostly passers-by who will be one-time shoppers, according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.
To build their customer base, the Drurys use a computerized customer mailling list. Regular customers get a card when the selling season starts, telling them the hours, what kind of trees are for sale and offering a discount. This system, plus signs, advertising and word-of-mouth referrals, has helped Liston and Dot build their business from 40 or 50 trees sold the first season to about 1,000 trees per year now.
Many Christmas tree farms are family affairs, with husbands and wives and even extended family members working together.
At Drury’s Christmas Tree Farm, Dot and Liston’s daughter and son-in-law, Colleen and Mike Jenkins, and their granddaughter Shannon Cheney, who all live in Winder, enjoy helping on weekends during the selling season. Son Steve and daughter-in-law Laura, who live in Denver, Colorado, usually fly to Georgia to help his parents on the farm during one of the busiest weeks in December.
The Drurys also employ several part-time workers as needed.
One of the greatest benefits of the business is the chance to work together as a couple, say the Drurys. “All year we’re planning how many and what kinds of trees to plant and how to improve over what we did last season.This is a shared business between us,” says Liston.
The Drurys also enjoy attending meetings of the 90-member North Georgia Christmas Tree Co-op with other Christmas tree farmers. Members cooperate to purchase supplies and to keep up with the latest information.
“Before Liston retired, we didn’t work together. He went his way and I went mine,” says Dot. “But I always thought it would be nice to work together. Though we’re opposites — Liston is real quiet and I am more lively — I think we complement each other. And we must work well together; our 45th wedding anniversary is coming up.”
Drury’s farm closes on Christmas Eve night, after last-minute have selected their trees. “We’re usually pretty worn out by then,” says Dot. “We go to Colleen’s house for Christmas. Then we kick back and relax for a few days until it’s time to plant trees again.”
“The trees we plan to sell five years from now,” adds Liston.
“I think we’ve been much happier since Liston retired and we started this business,” Dot says. “A lot of my friends can’t understand why we would want to do all of this work at our age, especially around the holidays when we are the busiest.
“But before we started this farm, Christmas was kind of sad around here, with our parents dead and most of our other family members living out of town. Working on the Christmas tree farm is so much fun. Now we look forward to opening day just like it’s a family reunion each year.”
Donny Seagraves is a freelance writer living in Winterville. She is a frequent contributor to Athens Magazine.
This article originally appeared in the December 1996, Vol.8 NO.5 issue of Athens Magazine, a regional lifestyle magazine published by Morris Communications. For more information, visit Athens Magazine.