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Putting the Green in Christmas

Area Christmas tree farmers
work hard to grow the perfect tree

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

(December 2002) – Everyday is Christmas for Clarence McGlaun Jr., owner of Alpine Ridge Christmas Tree Farm in La Grange, Ky. McGlaun’s workload doesn’t become easier just because the season changes.“I like to do it,” said McGlaun, who moved to La Grange in 1986 and operates his farm at 2600 Massey School Rd. “I’ve always had an interest in plants and trees.”"It’s a tremendous amount of work,” he said. “Everyone is looking for the perfect Christmas tree,” which is why he has to be particular every step of the way.

Roberts tree farm

Roberts tree farm, Seymour, Ind.

Growing Christmas trees is a year-round job. Young seedlings have to be planted in the spring to replace sold trees. Grass and weed control must be implemented over the summer and fall. And winter brings families to the farm to choose and cut a tree.
Every year in June and July, the trees also need to be trimmed or sheared to ensure that they will grow in a conical shape.“It takes six to eight years to grow a six-to seven-foot tree in Kentucky,” said Herb Loyd, president of the Kentucky Christmas Tree Association. He said the most common trees are White Pine and Scotch Pine.
“White Pine is a native American Tree. Scotch Pine is originally a European Tree brought to America with the colonists.”To Troy McWilliams, owner of Sleepy Hollow Tree Farm, 4301 S. Hwy. 1694 near Brownsboro, Ky., experience has been the best teacher. When starting out in the business, McWilliams advises tree farmers to form a “general idea, then learn over the years.”Patience has taught him not to plant trees too close together and not plant too many at one time. He has also learned how many of one variety to plant at a time, based on which of these varieties sell the best.McWilliams has 2,300 trees planted. His wife, Dianna, aids in their upkeep. Most of the time he can be found maintaining the adjacent Sleepy Hollow Golf Course, which was built in 1968 by his parents, Jim and Judy McWilliams. He said that he had extra land on the golf course, and after discussing it with his family, he decided to plant Christmas trees on it. He said his tree farm is a good business to have on the side.Both McGlaun and McWilliams raise Scotch and White Pine trees. McWilliams adds Norway Spruce and Douglas Fir to his inventory of trees. McWilliams said the best tree is the Douglas Fir, which has to be shipped from Oregon and Washington.
Loyd said that Fraser Firs do not grow well in this area either, and have to be shipped in from North Carolina, where growers say it takes 12-14 years to grow a six- to seven-foot Fraser Fir tree.
Despite the time it takes to actually make a profit from tree farming, Jerry Roberts of Roberts Tree Farm, 9977 N. Co. Rd. 25 E., in Seymour, Ind., said there is nothing like the experiences of seeing families choose their tree and “start a family tradition.”

Troy McWilliams

Troy McWilliams

“We’re selling an experience, not just a Christmas tree,” Roberts said. “It’s an activity that “all ages can participate in.”
Started in 1973, his tree farm provides five varieties of Christmas trees: Scotch Pine, White Pine, Austrian Pine, Blue Spruce and Caanan Fir. He encourages families to either walk or take a hayride through the more than 4,000 trees available on his farm.
One factor that sets Roberts’ operation apart from others is the availability of large trees on his farm. He said he sells 10-foot, 12-foot, and 14-foot trees to churches or customers who have vaulted ceilings in their homes.
All three Christmas tree growers spray their trees for different kinds of insects. Roberts sprays his trees with a special preservative to prevent the tips from yellowing. McGlaun added that deer could cause a considerable amount of damage.
McGlaun said he gets a lot of repeat business. It’s an enjoyable time for the entire family because it is “an experience you can’t get off of a tree lot,” he said.
He provides bow saws for families to take to the field and knows a family is pleased with his trees when he hears a child yell, “Timber!”
Most tree farmers agree that the best preservative for the tree once a family takes it home is to immediately place it in water. Some customers like to make a fresh cut on the tree first. McGlaun suggests placing it in warm water because it will travel up the tree trunk better than cold water.
A tree that has been outside in 30- to 40-degree temperatures must gradually become accustomed to the warmer temperature inside a home, said tree farmer Jim Bishop of Bedford, Ky. Bishop and his wife, Joyce, raise one acre of Scotch pines on their farm.
A customer may want to place the tree in a garage, then in a breezeway if available, before finally placing it in the home, Bishop said. He has recently entered the Christmas tree farm business again after taking a break due to several unproductive years. Although he will not sell trees this year, Bishop hopes to sell them next Christmas.
A tree that is kept moist is not likely to become a fire hazard, he said. As long as the water supply is checked daily and the tree is not close to a direct source of heat (such as a space heater), which would dry out its needles, any tree should last through the holiday season.
For McGlaun, raising Christmas trees has been “quite a learning experience,” he said. “There is a real misconception that you plant a tree, harvest, sell and things are great.” He advises that anyone interested in the business should visit an established tree farm before beginning his own.
Loyd, who also owns a tree farm, said, “Most farms fail for lack of forethought. I always tell prospective growers, ‘If you are going to grow trees, you have to put down your own roots.’ You can’t have a successful business if you plant trees and then three years later move across the country.”
McGlaun said that a popular trend for this year is the balled and burlap tree, which he sells for $59 to $89. This is a living Christmas tree that is dug up, its roots wrapped in burlap, and taken home for the holidays. As long as the roots are kept moist, the tree will remain alive. Many people plant it outside after the holidays, said McGlaun.

QUICK TREE FACTS

• There are approximately 30 million real Christmas trees sold in North America every year.
• Approximately 330,000 real Christmas trees are sold via e-commerce or catalogue and shipped mail-order.
• North-American real Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states and Canada. Eighty percent of artificial trees are manufactured in China.
• Real Trees are a renewable, recyclable resource. Artificial trees contain non-biodegradable plastics and possible metal toxins, such as lead and cadmium.
• Consumers can locate the nearest recycling program by logging onto www.realchristmastrees.org or calling 1-800-CLEANUP.
• For every real Christmas tree harvested, two to three seedlings are planted in its place the following spring. In spring 2002, more than 65 million real Christmas tree seedlings were planted.
• There are about 1 million acres in production for growing Christmas trees. Each acre provides the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people.
• There are about 15,000 Christmas tree growers in North America and more than 100,000 people employed full or part-time in the industry.
• It can take as many as 15 years to grow a tree of average retail sale height (six feet), but the average growing time is seven years.
• The top Christmas tree producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin.
• The top-selling Christmas trees are: Balsam Fir, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Noble Fir, Scotch Pine, Virginia Pine and White Pine.
• Last year, 28 million real Christmas trees were sold at a cost of between $3.93 and $7.19 per foot, for an average price of $31 per tree. The number of real trees sold for display represents 32 percent of all trees (real and cut).
• In 2001, 24 percent of U.S. households reported having a real tree, compared with 52 percent who had an artificial tree and 23 percent with no tree.
• The top reasons given in a 2000 survey for having no tree in the home were (1) didn’t want to or feel like it (20 percent); (2) not home for Christmas (20 percent); (3) too busy or too much trouble (12 percent); (4) religious reasons (10 percent).

Source: National Christmas Tree Association.

Bishop said it is a good idea to dig your hole for this tree immediately upon buying it, in case the ground is frozen when you get ready to plant it outside after the holidays. To prevent the tree’s system from going into shock, he said it is a good idea “to take it out gradually, the same way it came in the house.”
McGlaun said many families find this kind of tree appealing because every time they look at it, they’ll have tangible memories to last a lifetime.
John M. Robbins Jr., owner of Leota Christmas Tree Farm in Scottsburg, Ind., also sells this popular type of living Christmas tree. Robbins owns 40 acres, upon which 20 acres are planted in mostly Scotch and White pine trees.
He said he started planting trees in 1982 on the same land that his father had raised Christmas trees on in the 1940s. His father had planted the trees for erosion control, then found himself in the midst of a booming business selling trees. But since he took over the business after retiring, Robbins has added unique amenities to his operation.
He has a petting zoo with a variety of animals, one of the more popular being his potbelly pig that dances. He also has a pair of live reindeer, Rudy and Randy.
These features provide his customers a chance to spend the day together as a family, enjoying the farm, its animals and a gift shop located on the farm. He also sells wreaths and garlands.
Like McGlaun, Robbins said he has a lot of repeat customers. He treats them well by providing cutting, shaking and wrapping services. Santa even makes an appearance on the weekends.
McGlaun sells his trees at a set price of $29 per tree. McWilliams sells his Scotch and White Pines for $6 a foot and the Norway Spruce and Douglas Fir for $8 a foot. Roberts sells Pines for $4 and Spruce and Fir for $6 a foot. For an 8-foot tree, Robbins charges $16; for 8 to 10 feet, $25; and for over 10 feet, $35.

• To contact the tree farms in this story:
Alpine Ridge, La Grange, KY: (502) 933-1755
Sleepy Hollow, Brownsboro, KY: (502) 241-5441
Bishop Tree Farm, Bedford, KY: (502) 255-7121
Roberts Tree Farm, Seymour, IN: (812) 522-1288Leota Christmas Tree Farm, Scottsburg, IN: (812) 752-7160
Beck’s Tree Farm, North Vernon, IN: (812) 346-8588.

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