Growing memories

Christmas tree farms promote family experience

When Lisa Brabham Peairs was growing up on a dairy farm, her family would embark each year on a post-Thanksgiving trek into the nearby forest to choose and cut a Christmas tree.

Those fond memories are why she and husband, Ricky Peairs, grow hundreds of “choose-and-cut” Christmas trees on seven acres of their 93-acre Windy Hills Farm in East Feliciana Parish near Ethel.

“For us it is something for the whole family to do,” Peairs said. “Drive out to the country, walk around, look at the trees, spend some time together, pick a tree out and make a tradition — make a memory.”

Choose-and-cut trees are just what the sign says. Instead of choosing an already cut tree at a nursery, big-box store or corner lot that could have been grown in some other state, families go to a local tree farm, wander through the neat rows of cypress, cedar or pine to select just the right one, then cut it down and carry it to their vehicle. Friendly tree farm helpers will assist whenever and wherever they are needed.

Many farms also feature activities such as hayrides, gift shops, hot drinks and even a Santa to spice up the visit.

Windy Hills is not a large commercial operation. In fact, the Leyland Cypress Christmas trees are a supplement to a 60 cow-calf operation and Lisa Peairs’s veterinary business. There also is a small gift shop that sells fresh, homemade garlands and wreaths and jams and jellies cooked by her husband.

“We really don’t want to sell 2,000 trees; we want to sell four or five hundred and provide a nice experience that the families enjoy coming here,” Peairs said. “We’ve been selling for 12 years and we’re seeing the kids growing up — that’s kinda neat. I don’t think families do enough things together.”

Business has been good for Windy Hills and other local growers, due in part to the closure last year of Christmas Forest near Zachary. Windy Hills sold out of 400 trees last year and Peairs is hoping for similar success this year.

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, customers at the 45-acre, 16,000-tree Shady Pond Tree Farm in St. Tammany Parish near Pearl River, “pre-tagged” their trees for cutting later, a number that was 25 percent higher than last year.

“It appears at this point there is a trend developing — increased business — that we will be in the 18-20-25 percent range,” said owner Clarke J. Gernon Sr.

In West Feliciana Parish near St. Francisville, Don Reed expects to sell about 100 trees from his three-acre Leyland Christmas Tree Farm in the next few weekends. Reed is also an LSU Ag-Forestry professor and Christmas tree expert at Idlewild Research Station.

“Our people don’t want to buy a tree from a large retail place because there is no telling when it has been cut,” Reed said. “They want to come out to the farm and have a Christmas tradition.”

Christmas tree farms don’t require a lot of land, but they do require a lot of work and some equipment, such as a tractor, Reed said. Each tree requires a 6-by-8-foot space, or about 500 to 600 trees per acre, grown in annual rotations for later harvesting.

Growers don’t start the trees from seeds but from potted 3-year-old cuttings, costing $2 to $6 apiece. The cuttings are planted, fertilized, trimmed for shape each summer and, like any crop, have to be protected from weeds and pests. Mature trees sell for $55 to $65, depending on the size.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Reed said. “If you plant trees now, you can start selling in four years, especially if someone is looking for some supplemental income or a way to diversify their farm.”

Growing Christmas trees, especially choose-and-cut trees can be a profitable business, said Mike Buchart, executive secretary of The Southern Christmas Tree Association, a group of about 70 dues-paying growers in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

The number of growers has declined, Buchart said, but for those who can make it work, there is money to be made.

“We used to have 300 or 400 growers in the mid-’90s, the heyday of growers, then they started dwindling,” Buchart said. He attributes the decline to aging farmers in general and the amount of work it takes that many young people are not willing to do. “You just don’t plant these trees and walk away.”

Generally speaking, Buchart said, the business is healthy.

“I know we could use more growers — the ones we have are inundated with customers,” Buchart said. “We feel there is a definite demand.”

According to a 2012 LSU Cooperative Extension Service report, 35 Christmas tree producers sold 11,300 trees with a gross farm value of $568,000.

“There is a market for a good, fresh, home-grown tree and there is also a market for those people who have the time and want to experience something with their family,” Buchart said. “There is something about it that makes people feel good about Christmas.”

Blake Slemmer, operator of pickyourown.org website, a parent site of dozens of “pick your own” groups, agrees with Buchart that the business is hard but profitable.

“Many Christmas tree farmers are part-timers and aren’t experienced farmers,” Slemmer said. “Of course, the larger, longer-established tree farms are more professional.”

“Those tree farms that are run by folks who understand the basics of running any business, marketing, P&L (profit and loss), etc., are doing fine,” Slemmer said. “And those who embrace changes in the marketplace, technology, consumer tastes, and add agri-entertainment features (like hay rides, sleigh rides, Santa visits, bonfires with smores, reindeer, etc.) are doing very well.”

Slemmer said the industry is growing, but it’s doing so as agri-entertainment, instead of “the old Bubba who grows trees on some unused land. Today’s successful tree farmers are becoming more savvy and understand it is the experience that their customers, primarily families, want.”

One of those larger, longer-established tree farms Slemmer refers to Gernon’s Shady Pond Tree Farm in St. Tammany Parish.

Gernon has operated since 1979 a complex, mechanized operation with tractors, an industrial fertilizer mixer and a high-tech trimmer mounted on a skid-steer loader that can shape a tree in a matter of seconds.

“Shady Ponds Tree Farm has always been profitable,” Gernon said.

Gernon said customers come from as far away as Houma-Thibodaux, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss.

Along with growing a wide variety of trees for families, they also produce large and exotic trees for churches, government buildings and even the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion.

“In years gone by, the vast majority of the operations did not mechanize and made what proved to be a fatal mistake: approaching this as if it was a backyard vegetable garden,” Gernon said. “We understood the need to mechanize very early, and we did.”

For example, he uses a Murphy-Matic trimmer, one of only two known to still exist, that cost about $100,000 but can shape a tree every 10 seconds. He also utilizes a baler to wrap trees in a protective cocoon for transport.

When Gernon served as president of the Southern Christmas Tree Association in the late 1980s, there were 600 members, he said, compared to fewer than 100 now. He’s also served on the National Christmas Tree Association board and the number of growers nationally is also in steep decline.

“When families come here to cut trees it is just amazing,” Gernon said. “We want to give them a good product but the tree becomes incidental — the primary benefit is the process of choosing the tree is what generates the memories.

“The tree created in a person’s memory is perfect — no matter what the actual tree looked like,” Gernon said. “The memories they create going through the process last a lifetime.”

“I think things are going back to traditional family values,” Brabham Peairs said. “Even when the economy is bad people will put up a Christmas tree. We’ve had people tell us they bought a fake tree and then came back the next year to get a real tree; they just don’t compare.”