In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
“O, Christmas tree, O, Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches …” Thanks to the hard work of farmers across our state, North Carolina is the second-largest Christmas tree producer in the nation, filling our homes with the fresh smell of the season. And while North Carolina Christmas tree growers produce a variety of species — including beautiful white pines and Norway spruces, among others — on more than 38,000 acres annually, it’s the Fraser fir that reigns supreme in our hearts and homes, representing 94 percent of all the Christmas trees grown in the state.
“The Fraser fir is known as the ‘Cadillac of Christmas Trees,’” says Larry Smith, owner of Mountain Top Fraser Fir in Newland and supplier of the 2018 White House Christmas tree. “It has all the perfect things you’re looking for in a tree as far as aroma, needle retention, and shelf-life. It’s the Christmas tree that can’t be beaten. I’m just lucky enough to live in the mountains of western North Carolina, where 27 percent of the national market now comes from about a four-county area.”
Still, deciding on the type of tree you want is just the first step, so we’ve chatted with Smith and two other experts — Matthew Sexton, co-owner of Frosty’s Choose and Cut in West Jefferson, and John Wilson, owner of Snow Creek Christmas Trees in Bakersville — about their tips for picking the perfect tree and why real Christmas trees are superior.
Owner of Mountain Top Fraser Fir in Newland
Co-owner of Frosty’s Choose and Cut in West Jefferson
Owner of Snow Creek Christmas Trees in Bakersville
How did you get your start in the Christmas tree business?
Larry Smith: I started in the Christmas tree business when I was a senior in high school in 1977. My football coach raised trees, so we helped him during harvest, and I just loved it. It was a passion of mine. I set my first tree in the spring of ’77 when I graduated, and I’ve set Christmas trees every year since.
Matthew Sexton: My brothers and I are fourth-generation family farmers. We work with our mom and dad. All three of us went to college here in North Carolina, and everyone is coming back to the family business, so we’re sticking around here with the Christmas trees.
John Wilson: My father and my uncle started growing Christmas trees in the ’70s, and I got into it by helping them for many, many years. I moved backed to the mountains about 20 years ago and was doing the Christmas trees on the side, but I’ve been retired now for three years and am now a full-time grower.
What do you love most about what you do?
Larry Smith: I love farming and being in the field. Also, we retail a lot of our trees, so I’m selling to probably the third or fourth generation of customers. I started retailing in 1980, so it’s just a lot of fun to see the kids and what memories they’re going to make at Christmas when they’re home. Not only do we get to make memories with them at our retail location, but you just think of the memories that are going to be made on Christmas morning when they open presents.
Matthew Sexton: We’re a very close family and we all love working together, especially during Christmas time. It’s a happy time, and to provide a tree to a family and see the happiness that brings, it’s kind of like you’re with them throughout Christmas.
John Wilson: Just being outside and growing something. We harvest the trees and then replant new trees, and so it’s just a constant turnover from cutting a tree to planting a new seed and taking care of it and watching it grow into another Christmas tree.
What’s your favorite kind of Christmas tree?
Matthew Sexton: We’re right here in the North Carolina mountains, so we’re big on the North Carolina Fraser fir. In our opinion, it’s the best Christmas tree. It’s got the best needle retention, sturdy branches, and that wonderful smell.
John Wilson: You want a fresh tree, and the nice thing about Fraser firs, which are native to North Carolina, is that they hold their needles exceptionally well. Whether it’s a garden center, an optimist club, or a Boy Scouts group selling the trees, if they kept them shaded, they’re going to typically hold their needles extremely well. The Fraser fir is an extremely fragrant Christmas tree, so you get the good Christmas tree smell and good needle retention.
So where should we go to get our tree?
Larry Smith: Really, you’re making a memory for your family no matter what, whether it’s at your local retail lot or if you drive to a choose-and-cut farm and cut the tree yourself — both of those experiences are really good. If you can’t drive to a choose-and-cut, I would recommend finding someone that’s retailed for several years and has a good market where they replenish their supplies several times throughout the season, so that way you’ll be able to find a good size and get a fresh-cut tree.
Matthew Sexton: To get your family together and go wherever it is to pick a real Christmas tree — the perfect one for your home — is just so exciting. It will continue to be a family tradition every year.
That sounds so fun! But why should we buy a real tree?
Larry Smith: The main reason to go with a real tree versus an artificial tree is that it’s environmentally friendly — it can be turned into mulch. We’re providing oxygen for ourselves, and it’s protecting the soil from erosion. Aesthetically, everyone loves seeing a field of Christmas trees. I tell people they need to tell their kids and grandkids to keep buying real trees because that’s giving us income economically, we’re not supporting China, and the artificial trees end up in the landfill and are not biodegradable. Environmentally, it’s better. Economically, it supports North Carolina.
Matthew Sexton: I could talk for hours on this, but whenever you buy a real tree, you can be really proud of your choice because of the environmental side of it. For every tree we cut we usually plant two back.
John Wilson: We are replanting trees that we harvest, and usually that tree is taken in the house, displayed, and enjoyed throughout the holiday season, and then, in many cases, is turned into mulch for garden centers or playgrounds. An artificial tree is made in China and shipped over here by the hundreds of thousands, but it’s built on a petroleum base in most cases, and as much as they try to make them look natural, it’s an imported product from China as opposed to a naturally grown product from a United States farmer.
How do you pick the perfect Christmas tree?
Larry Smith: People often ask what makes the perfect Christmas tree, and I tell them it’s all in the eye of the beholder. One thing to make sure of is that the tree is not too tall. When you’re outside, the sky is your ceiling, but that tree is going to look a lot bigger once you get home. Make sure you know the height of your ceiling and the width of the area where you’re going to put the tree. When I look for the perfect tree, I look at the density, and a lot of that depends on the size of the ornaments: If you’ve got bigger ornaments, you need a semi-open tree so those ornaments will hang. Also, the color is very important. I look for the darker green.
Matthew Sexton: The tree you pick out is your perfect Christmas tree.
John Wilson: During the summer, I go into the field and size-tag the trees, and I personally choose every tree we are going to ship. I’m very conscious of the color of the tree — I like a deep bluish-green color, which indicates a very fresh and aromatic tree — and I like a straight top. Some people like their trees very full and dense, and some like space between the limbs, and that’s where you need to choose. The more space you have, the bigger the ornaments you can have on the tree. It’s a matter of personal taste. For me, I’d pull on some of the limbs to see if there are an excessive amount of needles that might come off, which would indicate that maybe that tree has been cut for a long period of time. The good thing about the Fraser firs being in North Carolina is we don’t have to cut the trees as early as you do further north. For me, the perfect tree is one that is not totally dense but has enough space so you can hang ornaments.
What price ranges are considered reasonable for each type and category of tree?
Larry Smith: For Fraser firs in the 6- to 8-foot range (more than 80 percent of the market), you’re looking at probably close to $10 to $12 per foot. A Fraser fir is probably 13 years old from seed when it is 7 or 8 feet tall.
John Wilson: I can’t speak for retail pricing, but for choose-and-cut pricing, it’ll typically be somewhere around $9 to $12 per foot. A 10 percent price increase is probably conservative for this year because there is a tremendous demand for Christmas trees. I get calls every day from people all over the country wanting to buy trees.
Yay! We found the perfect Christmas tree! How do we keep it looking fresh all holiday season?
Larry Smith: When you get that tree home, make about an inch-long fresh cut on the bottom of the trunk where it will drink water, and it should have no problem making it through the first of the year.
John Wilson: Especially the first week, I would check the water in your tree stand daily because when you first put it up it’s going to drink a lot of water, so you need to keep that bowl full.
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