Midstate Christmas tree farms ready for busy season

lmorris@macon.comNovember 27, 2013 

  • Christmas tree farms by acres in Georgia

    The number of acres devoted to Georgia Christmas tree farms has been declining for a number of years. Some of the lost acres has been attributed to urban sprawl in the early 2000s.
    2008 2,285 acres
    2009 2,177 acres
    2010 2,130 acres
    2011 1,859 acres
    2012 1,629 acres
    2013 not available
    Source: The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
  • Tips for choosing, caring for live Christmas trees

    • Buy a tree a foot shorter than the ceiling, and consider the fullness of the tree.
    • The freshest trees are at choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms, which also supports local farmers.
    • Shake the tree before you buy it. Lots of needles falling off is a bad sign.
    • Check for insects and dead needles around the middle of the tree as these could indicate a dead tree.
    • A droopy looking tree probably means it’s gone too long without water.
    • A tree with a straight trunk between 6 and 8 inches long below the branches is easier to put in a stand.
    • At home, cut an inch off of the base and immediately put in water, and use a stand that holds at least a gallon of water.
    • Check the tree’s water supply, especially during the first couple of days when it will drink a lot of water.
    Source: University of Georgia, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

The day after Thanksgiving, which has long held the moniker Black Friday, could also be called Evergreen Friday.

That day in particular has become popular for families to visit a Christmas tree farm in search of the perfect tree.

“The Christmas tree business is a happy business to be in,” said Sam Beall, owner of Beall Christmas Tree Farm in Dublin. “Most everyone who comes to the field is happy, and it’s fun.”

Beall will begin selling trees Thanksgiving afternoon and a few tree farms opened last weekend, but most consider Friday to be the start of a busy season for growers.

Don Thaxton, owner of the Trees of Joy farm in Butts County that will open Friday, said he likes to be part of a family’s tradition.

“I have a lot of families come out and bring their camera, and take pictures of their kids with a saw,” Thaxton said. “They don’t do a very good job, but they have a lot of fun.”

Christmas tree farms in the midstate offer you-cut or pre-cut trees, and some operations have a gift shop selling hot chocolate, wreaths, garland, tree stands and other festive products. Sometimes farmers adjust their days and hours of operation, and tree hunters should call in advance.

Even though the tree-selling season is about a month long, growing Christmas trees is a year-round business.

“We have to prepare for planting, stake them, prune them, straighten them back up after wind storms and mow around the trees,” said Donald Watson, owner of Sandy Creek Christmas Tree Farm in Twiggs County.

Trees are planted about 6 to 7 feet apart to give them room to grow. They usually are shaped in the spring and fall and sometimes just before they’re sold.

Trees grow at different rates depending on the variety, but it usually takes about six years “to get one to optimal market size,” Watson said. The most requested height is about 7 feet 6 inches, he said.

Recently Roberts Christmas Tree Farm in Peach County sold a 26-foot tall tree to a church, owner Eddie Roberts said.

“That’s about a 9-year-old tree,” he said. “It takes a flatbed truck and six men to load it.”

The type of tree customers wants continually evolves, Watson said.

“We still carry some older ones like Southern cedar and Virginia pine, but by far -- overwhelmingly -- the Deep South favorite is Leyland cypress,” he said. “It does not shed, it’s dense and reasonably priced.”

Some of the other popular trees are Carolina sapphire and green giant. While pines and cedars have a nice smell, they also can dry out sooner than other varieties, according to a report by the Georgia Christmas Tree Association. For that reason, a red cedar should not be cut more than two weeks before Christmas.

Christmas tree acreage in Georgia has dropped to 1,629 acres, down considerably from the 2,130 acres recorded two years ago and the 2,285 acres in 2008, according to the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Watson, who has been growing Christmas trees 36 years, used to have 550 acres of trees and had a wholesale business. He began cutting back about 15 years ago and now has about 30 acres of trees.

“We deliberately reduced our operation to choose-and-cut,” he said. “It got extremely difficult to find labor, and the market was shifting a little bit. ... We sell half the real trees that we did 25 years ago.”

Thaxton, the tree grower from Butts County, agrees that the live Christmas tree market has changed.

“The bad news for the farmer is the trend is 56 percent fake, 30 percent no tree and 17 percent live tree,” Thaxton said, quoting figures from a tree growers magazine.

Thaxton began planting Christmas trees in 1987 and sold the first ones in 1991. He used to sell about 600 trees a season, but that number has fallen to about 400, he said.

Some of the lost acreage is blamed on the economic boom in the early 2000s as tree farms were sold for housing developments, according to the UGA news release. Also, some farm owners quit the business as they got older and retired.

While Beall said he has reduced the size of his operation from 13 acres to about 8 acres, he keeps the business going for a personal reason.

“I grew up on a farm and this keeps me and my children tied to the dirt,” he said. “They’ve learned a lot about dealing with the public. It’s a way to keep them connected to the agribusiness.”

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