Christmas Trees

The Christmas trees are gone.

A handwritten note is tacked to the door of the tobacco-barn-turned-office.

“Dear Customer, We have sold out of Fraser Fir Trees, If you want a farm tree or have any questions please call. … Thank you and Merry Christmas! See You Next Year!”

Signed, “Beautancus Christmas Trees & Wreaths.”

That seems strange.

It’s December 19.

The temperature is 63 degrees. That’s warm, even for down here in the flat, sandy farm country of Duplin County. The big day is coming, but there’s still time to purchase a tree and trim it by Christmas morning. And this farm, Beautancus Christmas Tree Farm, is supposed to sell trees and wreaths. The sign out front claims it’s OPEN in tall, red letters.

But nobody’s here. Something’s not right.

The note must be wrong; the trees aren’t gone. Plenty of white pines and Leyland cypress stand out back. Big, tall ones, full and lush. A couple of choose-and-cut signs lie propped up to the side. Some stray needles prove that someone at some point this season bought a tree here. But not today. The sign by the road says OPEN, but the note on the door says too late.

“See You Next Year.”

•••

North Carolina ranks No. 2 in the nation in Christmas trees harvested, producing about 19 percent of the country’s Christmas trees. More than 96 percent of North Carolina’s trees are Fraser firs. Twelve North Carolina trees have stood in the White House — all of them Frasers.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think a Fraser fir was the only option. But the Fraser’s rise to top-tree status happened only in the past few decades. Up until the 1940s and ’50s, most North Carolina families cut their Christmas trees from the woods. Cedars were a popular choice. Sparse and spindly with wimpy branches, cedars are far from the stately image we have of Christmas trees today. But they came cheap.

As development increased, in North Carolina and across the United States, fewer people had a backyard supply of Christmas trees. Tree lots began to appear.

In the 1950s, North Carolina farmers experimented with Christmas trees, planting Scotch pine, balsam fir, Douglas fir, and red cedar. The Fraser fir, however, remained a landscape tree. The first Frasers to be sold commercially as Christmas trees came from federal forest land on Roan Mountain in North Carolina.
Once people began to buy Frasers, they didn’t want anything else.

•••

“The Fraser fir that mountain people grow is the Cadillac of Christmas trees,” says Brownie Southerland.

Southerland sits in his living room with his feet propped up high. He doesn’t change positions. Moving is too painful. Any other December, he’d be selling Christmas trees. But this year is different. It seems odd to him. He feels out of place. He’s had three back surgeries in the last 12 months. And right now, the 74-year-old has to stay put.

“I’m wore out,” he says. “That old back just quit. I oughta been fishin’ instead of workin’, but I love to work in Christmas trees.”

Southerland grew up on that farm down the road with the sign out front that says OPEN and the note on the door that says, “See you next year.” If something there isn’t right, it’s because he’s here in this chair, not there on that farm.

He planted his first Christmas trees in 1951 when he was 12 years old. He needed a 4-H project, so his grandfather told him he could plant some trees on an acre of fallow land. He put in 1,000 cedars. By the time he got to high school, those trees were ready to sell. And Southerland went into the Christmas tree business.

He then went on to farm traditional crops and raise a few hogs and cows. When he was 32, he decided to become a park ranger at nearby Cliffs of the Neuse State Park. He worked in Christmas trees as a hobby. Then he retired and took on Christmas trees as a full-time job.

At one time, Southerland had 12,000 trees on his farm. He grew red cedar, Leyland cypress, white pine, Green Giant. But out of the thousands of trees Southerland has grown on his Duplin County farm, not one of them has been a Fraser fir.

The Frasers prefer high elevation, 3,000 feet or more. They like cool temperatures and well-drained soil. Only about 18 North Carolina counties in the far western region have prime growing conditions for Frasers.

When the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association established the Fraser Fir Promotional Committee in 1990, many eastern North Carolina growers were worried. They saw an organization with a statewide name promoting a product they couldn’t grow. So they formed their own group: the Eastern North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers’ Association.

The group has about 30 members and meets twice a year. They focus on education, marketing, networking, and research. They also pool their resources and share the cost of purchasing loads of Fraser fir trees from the mountains. Residents in this region started requesting Fraser firs in the 1990s, so farmers decided that instead of turning away business, they’d give people what they want. But they aren’t content to concede to western growers.

About 15 years ago, Southerland and a couple of other association members sat in on interviews to hire a Christmas tree geneticist at North Carolina State University. Dr. John Frampton has traveled across the country and the world researching Christmas trees. He’s worked to combat phytophthora, or root rot, which affects trees in the mountains and the east. He also experiments with grafting. He takes fir species that won’t grow Down East and attaches them to rootstocks that survive here.

Frampton and his colleagues at N.C. State and the N.C. Cooperative Extension have planted different varieties of firs, such as Momi, Turkish, and concolor. A few years ago, they put in a plot of Christmas trees at the Horticultural Crops Research Station in Clinton. There they monitor soil conditions and measure height and growth patterns.

If anyone believes in their efforts, it’s Southerland.

“We’ve got a grower or two around that’s growing some fir-type trees grown in the east in a warm climate,” Southerland says. “So it gives me some encouragement that what we’re doing will prove out to be worthwhile.”

•••

One of those growers is Tommy Naylor. He lives in the Meadow community, better known for the Meadow Village Restaurant and its towering layer cakes than Christmas trees. But Naylor is doing his best to make Christmas trees work here in Johnston County.

His truck parked in the driveway has a bumper sticker: “Fraser Fir Trees Make Scents.” But they don’t here.

“I’ve never field planted any Fraser firs,” Naylor says. “I know they’ll die.”

Every year he purchases about 50 Frasers from vendors. He slips the ends of the trees into his pond to keep them fresh until he puts them on display in his front yard.

In addition to the Frasers, Naylor sells about 50 to 100 trees cut from his property. His farm, where his father once raised hogs and planted a big vegetable garden, is now an ongoing experiment. Naylor is meticulous with his plantings. He tests the soil of different plots. He keeps records of which varieties grow best where.

His favorite fir that he can grow here is the Canaan fir, originally from Canaan Valley, West Virginia. It tolerates temperatures too warm for Frasers.

Customers tend to want tree varieties they remember from their childhood, Naylor says. Last year, a couple drove down from Chapel Hill to purchase a white pine. The wife was from West Virginia, and that’s what she wanted. They’ve already pre-ordered another white pine for this Christmas.

Two years ago, Naylor got a call from a man in Afghanistan. He lived in Jacksonville and would be home for Christmas. He found Naylor’s website and called to make sure he’d still have some trees. The man and his wife came the second weekend of December.

Those stories are Naylor’s favorite part. And he’s not about to deprive people in eastern North Carolina of cutting their own trees, no matter what variety, if that’s a tradition they want to keep.

•••

Scott Rolison decided to take a break from selling Christmas trees last year.

He was going through some tough times, “life-changing events,” as he says. So he didn’t order any trees from the mountain as he usually does. The 45-year-old father of a 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter thought the family needed a simple Christmas on their farm in Roxboro.

But as Christmas got closer, Rolison received some calls. He told customers he wasn’t bringing down any Fraser firs this year. Twenty people showed up anyway. They bought Leyland cypress growing in his patch by the driveway.

A couple from south Raleigh drove up to his farm just 10 miles from the Virginia line because the husband wanted to cut his own tree. He showed up with a borrowed chain saw from a neighbor. He looked like he had never seen a saw, let alone used one. But Rolison supervised, and the man succeeded.

“Those are the little things people remember,” Rolison says.

After an unexpected sales season, Rolison attended his first meeting of the eastern growers association in February, created a new website for this place he calls Daisy Hill Top Farm, and planted 100 more Leyland cypress. He plans to order 100 Fraser firs this year from a farm in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.

“I just felt like God was telling me to get back into it,” Rolison says.

A few years ago, he planted 18 Fraser firs out back after taking a grafting class at N.C. State. Rolison accepts some responsibility for their weird growth pattern, but they don’t look promising. Some are crooked. Some have no branches on one side.

“Out of here, only three or four will be decent trees,” Rolison says.

He might try some more Frasers, or maybe some Douglas firs. But in the last few years, some people have asked if he has any cedars. After all the experiments, it’s nice to get a request for a hometown variety once in a while.

•••

Bobby Brock has people come to his farm in Apex and ask for cedars unsheared.

“Some of my customers don’t want you to even touch it,” he says.

One of the biggest tasks for Christmas tree farmers is shearing. Most of the work is done in the summer. Some trees, like Virginia pines, require two shearings per year to maintain their shape.

“Virginia pine doesn’t want to be a Christmas tree,” Brock says. “You have to make it behave.”

But some customers prefer a natural cedar look like the trees that so many grandparents had, those spindly things with wimpy limbs. Maybe Christmas tree shoppers are going the way of the natural-food movement. Less human intervention. More Mother Nature. Or maybe it’s just nostalgia. They don’t care as much about having a perfect, green triangle as having a tree with some meaning, one that conjures memories.

Brock grows a few Scotch pines on his property, even though the climate isn’t ideal. They often grow crooked, with gaps between the branches and needles so stiff you almost need gloves to decorate them.

“That’s a dodgy kind of tree,” Brock says of the Scotch pine. “But people from Pennsylvania, that’s what they want.”

Brock’s No. 1 seller is white pine. But he has no idea how many he sells. He’s never kept count of the people who come and cut a tree. He’s unconventional. But he’s proud of it. He prices his trees differently than most. The industry standard is so much per foot, but height is just one factor he uses to set a price. He also considers the uniformity. Brock also plants his trees closer together than most growers. He makes the narrower space work because the 72-year-old uses a push mower instead of a riding mower to cut the grass between trees.

“People think I’m off, and I don’t dispute it,” he says. “But I don’t use a riding mower.”

When Brock got into the Christmas tree business in the early ’70s, he said he’d never sell a tree he didn’t grow. But he eventually gave in. He buys 50 or 60 Fraser firs from vendors to sell at his farm, but his Fraser fir sales have dropped off the past few years.

Eight or nine places now sell Fraser firs within five miles of Brock’s house. But he’s one of the only choose-and-cut options in the sprawling suburbs of Apex and Cary.

•••

Maybe Fraser firs won’t succeed Down East. But farmers here aren’t going to just leave Christmas trees to the western growers. They want to provide their customers an opportunity to come to the farm and cut a tree.

A tree grown here, in eastern North Carolina.

“It’s just a better draw to let a customer come and pick it out right on the stump,” Southerland says. “It’s a lot more fun for that little one to come and say, ‘This is the one I want. Can we have that one?’ So that’s why we’re pushing so hard to grow something that the people want.”

Just one year after Southerland spent his entire Christmas tree season off the farm recuperating with his feet propped up, he’s moving around. But he’s still in a lot of pain. And he’s slow.

He makes it down to the farm these days, if only for a few hours, to watch his daughter, Lori Martin, and her husband, Tony, get things ready for Christmas. They meant what they said when they tacked up that sign that read, “See You Next Year.” Tony and Lori did the best they could last season. They ordered some Fraser firs, but they sold out too early. They cut some trees out of the field even though they hadn’t been properly pruned.

It felt different to Lori not to have her father there. She cried a lot.

“That’s about all I did last season,” she says. “Something would happen, and I would cry.”

She and Tony still have full-time jobs. He’s a barber. She works in the financial-aid office at Mount Olive College. But they spend every spare minute on Beautancus Christmas Tree Farm.

They planted about 100 Leyland cypress, white pine, and Green Giant trees last winter. Those trees will be big enough to cut in about five years. But the ones that stand behind the old tobacco barn are ready now. Tony finished the trimming. He and Lori cleaned up the office. They’ll have wreaths and bows for sale. And yes, they’ll have Fraser firs. And yes, they know the Cadillac Christmas trees won’t last long. But once the Frasers are gone, that won’t be the end. Lori will be here until December 24. And for a family in eastern North Carolina looking to make their Christmas complete, those farm trees will be a welcome sight.

Beautancus Christmas
Tree Farm
1569 Beautancus Road
Mount Olive, N.C. 28365
(919) 778-7060 or (919) 658-4512

Brock’s Tree Farm
8317 Lawdraker Road
Apex, N.C. 27539
(919) 333-6696
anderware.com/bgbtrees

Daisy Hill Top Farm
571 Daisy Thompson Road
Roxboro, N.C. 27574
(336) 322-3031
daisyhilltopfarm.com

Northlake Christmas
Trees & Nursery
7326 Meadowbrook Road
Benson, N.C. 27504
(919) 894-3524
northlakechristmastreenursery.com

For more information about the Eastern North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers’ Association and a complete list of tree farms, visit nc-chooseandcut.com.

Leah Hughes is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and a freelance writer in Charlotte. She buys her Christmas tree every year from Mistletoe Meadows in Laurel Springs. Find more of her archived stories here

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