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At choose-your-own farm, death and birth of a Christmas tree

The man who hugs the Christmas trees grew up on this farm.

Wheat and soybeans once took root here, back when Knoxville Road was dirt and kids played in it.

Now he is the farmer, and for the past decade and a half Toby Bullington has raised Christmas trees.

Mothers, fathers and children have made a holiday tradition of visiting his land a few miles below Lizella.

Against a fall-rusted backdrop of poplars, sweet gums and oaks at the pasture’s edge, Bullington’s hand-trimmed evergreens sprout by the hundreds.

And families come to cut them down.

There are 1,000 or so trees in all -- cypress spires standing at attention in orderly rows -- some 5 years old and plump, others young and gangly.

About half are for sale each year.

If the wild hogs don’t get to them.

“They’ll pick one row of trees and go right down it,” Bullington said Friday, pretty much the start of the yule tree buying season. “I guess these tender roots are tasty.”

Bullington, the slim, white-mustached 72-year-old proprietor of Double “B” Farms, treats the trees with such care that he even names them.

“You spend so much time with them,” he said.

Not that he gets too attached to the Leyland and Murray cypresses.

“It’s a tree,” he said, “you know?”

He sometimes notices their imperfections more than customers do.

“They’ll tell you how beautiful they are. But you get to be real critical of how the trees look -- their shape -- after a while,” Bullington said.

‘SMELLS LIKE CHRISTMAS’

Even so, he enjoys the trees and the work just the same.

When families with children show up, he sometimes makes a show of hugging the trees farewell before they’re cut.

One father who lost a son to cancer comes every year before Thanksgiving. His son had liked having the tree set up before the holidays.

Of the customers who choose to cut their own trees, none has ever sawed off a human limb in the process.

But there was an injury one year. A man who laid on the ground to hand-saw a trunk discovered an unpleasant present beneath his tree: fire ants.

Stung, the man asked Bullington, “What are you gonna do about it?”

“I’m not gonna do anything about it,” Bullington said. “I couldn’t believe a grown man would lay down in a bed of fire ants.”

Late Friday morning, a woman and her four children pulled up at the farm in a Toyota SUV.

The woman rolled down her window.

“What is the tree-picking protocol here?” she asked.

Bullington pointed her toward the trees and said to pick out one she liked. He said he’d be glad to lend a hand and a chain saw.

After she parked, Jenn Burgess mentioned that over the summer her family had moved to Jones County from Arkansas.

“We’re still getting used to the wildlife,” she said, adding that there is a wild chipmunk loose their house.

“I’m a little worried about it attacking the tree,” she said.

Then Burgess, 40, tape measure in hand, followed her children into the 9-foot-high forest.

“Smells like Christmas,” she said.

‘IT’S ONLY $40?’

Burgess, whose Air Force pilot husband, Jim, flies C-130s, figured the tree farm would be packed.

It wasn’t. Maybe everyone was caught up in the Black Friday free-for-all. Not Burgess, though. Not her thing.

“How bushy does it need to be, guys?” she asked her kids, who’d by then scattered.

From tree to tree they went, inspecting, saying things like “too big” and “perfectly manicured” and “it’s only $40?”

“I was expecting to spend $100 for a live tree,” Burgess said.

“I choose the really big bushy tall one,” said her daughter, Lauren, 19.

Her son, Cole, 9, checked its height with the tape measure.

Later, Cole lifted his sister, Lilly, 6, off her feet, horseplaying.

Careful, Jenn told Cole, “We’re not cutting her down.”

They settled on a $45 tree and waved Bullington over.

He arrived, sat his chain saw at his feet, then turned and stuck his arms into the Murray cypress’s boughs. He hugged and patted its branches.

“Oh, baby,” Bullington told the tree, “I’m sorry.”

Then he introduced it to the Burgess clan.

“This is Henrietta,” he said, reminding them to be sure to keep her watered.

As he fired up the saw, Jenn asked how old the tree was.

Five years, Bullington said with a hint of nostalgia.

“Awww,” Jenn said, “you feel bad about cutting it down.”

“Well,” Bullington said, squatting to slice the trunk, “not really.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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