Christmas Tree Farmers Invest Long-Term In The Holiday Spirit

Dec 25, 2014
Originally published on December 25, 2014 8:09 pm

When you step into the bright red barn at Claybrooke Farm in Louisa, Va., it instantly feels like Christmas. A pot of hot cider bubbles on the stove. Friends, neighbors and extended family make wreaths while owner John Carroll hauls in wood for the fire. It's gray outside, but the barn is full of holiday cheer.

As Christmas tree farmers, the Carroll family is in the business of holiday cheer. As we leave the warmth of the barn and board the tractor for a tour of the fields, Virginia Carroll tells me this land has been in her family for generations. But she and John, a forester, switched from cattle to Christmas trees after they got married.

"We planted our first trees when we were expecting Matthew," she says, as the tractor takes us through the fields. "A little while down the road we had another son, Tyler. It just seemed like a good use of the land and a good fit for us, particularly at the time."

Matthew and Tyler, now grown, point to "their fields," the plots of land planted when they were born. Where Matthew's white pines once were, now there are just a few overgrown evergreens and an empty field, ready for the next planting.

The trees take seven to 12 years to mature, assuming you don't run into drought, deer, invasive species, or any of the other factors that can endanger the young trees.

Despite the long timeline, most farmers are confident planting them. Americans buy 25 million Christmas trees every year and the holiday trend, around since the 1850s, seems unlikely to dissipate any time soon.

And trees can generate a good return. You can plant about 1,000 seedlings per acre, and 400 to 800 of those turn into sellable trees. And anyone who's bought a Christmas tree knows, they can sell for $50, $100 or more.

For Virginia and John, with two young children and acres of land to maintain, "it seemed like it would be a good idea to maybe [raise] something other than livestock, which had to be fed and cared for on a regular basis."

John and Matthew are both trained foresters and Matthew's wife, Charley Gail, is the agriculture teacher at the local high school. Even Tyler, who studied political science in college and now works for the Virginia Department of Tourism, comes back on the weekends to shear and sell the trees, and manage the social media accounts.

In other words, this is a family that knows their trees — and understands the work involved in growing the perfect tree.

"When the tree is young, you don't do much trimming," Matthew says. "After two or three years, you do some light trimming with hand shears. When it gets to about four, you have to start using some other equipment, like a modified weed whacker. And when we think the tree is ready to be sold, we do less trimming — we want to keep it looking natural."

The shearing, which they try to get done by the Fourth of July each year, is a massive undertaking for the whole family. But they aren't discouraged by the slog. What started as an investment crop has turned into a family passion. And the tradition is still growing: Matthew and Charley Gail had their first child, Coleman, in August.

Coleman's college fund will be planted this Spring.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This Christmas morning, I have been gathering around a studio with a wonderful staff of colleagues who are working this holiday. Maybe you're gathered around a Christmas tree. And probably the last thing on your mind is how much that tree is worth. But it's a different story for the people who sell them. It's big business. Americans bought over 25 million trees last year, and many were purchased from small farmers. NPR's Eleanor Klibanoff visited a farm in Louisa, Virginia.

ELEANOR KLIBANOFF, BYLINE: Step into the bright, red barn at Claybrooke farms, and it feels like Christmas. A pot of hot cider bubbles on the stove. Friends, neighbors and extended family make wreathes while owner John Carroll hauls in wood for the fire. It's gray outside, but the barn is full of holiday cheer.

As Christmas tree farmers, holiday cheer is the Carroll family business. As we leave the warmth of the barn and board the tractor for a tour of the fields, Virginia Carroll tells me this land has been in her family for generations. She and her husband started the Christmas tree business once they were married.

VIRGINIA CARROLL: We actually planted our first trees when we were expecting Matthew. And then a little while down the road, we had another son, Tyler. And it just seemed like a good use of the land and a good fit for us.

KLIBANOFF: Matthew and Tyler, now grown, point to their fields. Where Matthew's white pines were first planted, there are just a few overgrown evergreens and an empty field ready for the next planting. The Carroll's, like many farmers, saw the trees as an investment to be cashed in when their children were heading off to college. Christmas trees can generate a good return. Plant about a thousand seedlings per acre. Four hundred to 800 of those turn into sellable trees, which can go for $50, $100 or more. And compared to other farm businesses, they're a lot less work.

VIRGINIA CARROLL: It seemed like it would be a good idea, maybe, to have something other than livestock, which had to be fed and cared for on a regular basis.

KLIBANOFF: Christmas trees can take seven to 12 years to mature depending on the type; seven to 12 years if you don't run into drought, deer, invasive species or any of the other factors that can endanger the young trees. The Carroll family isn't immune to these risks, but John and Matthew are both trained foresters. Virginia has lived on this land her whole life. Matthew's wife, Charley Gail, is the agriculture teacher at the local high school. As Matthew will tell you, this is a family that knows the care these trees require.

MATTHEW CARROLL: As the tree gets older, you have more trimming to do. When it gets to about four or so, we'll need to start using other equipment. We want to keep them looking fairly natural.

KLIBANOFF: What started as an investment crop has turned into a family passion, and the tradition is still growing. Matthew and Charley Gail had their first child, Coleman, in August. Coleman's college fund will be planted this spring. Eleanor Klibanoff, NPR News, Washington.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.