For Christmas trees, a tale of 2 Carolinas

  • Posted: Saturday, December 1, 2012 8:36 p.m.
AP photo
Charlie Tumbleston shakes the loose needles from a Leyland cypress with a machine he built himself at his Noels Christmas Tree Farm on Johns Island.
AP photo Charlie Tumbleston shakes the loose needles from a Leyland cypress with a machine he built himself at his Noels Christmas Tree Farm on Johns Island.

Although the spirit of the season is the same, it’s a tale of two Carolinas when it comes to growing Christmas trees.

North Carolina is the nation’s second-largest Christmas tree producer behind Oregon and harvests more than 5 million trees each year, most of them Fraser firs grown high in the Appalachian Mountains at altitudes around 4,000 feet.

This year, one of those Fraser firs, a 19-footer grown by Rusty and Beau Estes in Ashe County, is gracing the Blue Room as the White House Christmas tree. North Carolina has about 1,600 growers with an estimated 50 million trees currently being grown.

South Carolina, on the other hand, has only about 45 growers – most of them mom-and-pop operations. They harvest only about 30,000 trees on choose-and-cut farms, where families wander among Virginia pines and Leyland cypress looking for the perfect tree. However, the always-popular Fraser fir cannot grow in the state’s low elevations.

This is the busiest weekend of the year for selecting live Christmas trees, and growers said the season for them ends about mid-December.

Americans bought about 31 million trees last season worth more than $1 billion. According to a consumer survey taken for the National Christmas Tree Association, about a third of the people who buy live trees do so at a choose-and-harvest farm.

Bottomley Evergreens and Farms in Ennice, N.C., not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Virginia line, harvested about 700,000 trees this year – almost 25 times South Carolina’s annual harvest. It’s a major tree and greens supplier in the East and ships nationwide, as well as to the Cayman Islands and Canada.

Sales are up this year, but Superstorm Sandy has caused some disruption for sales in the northeast, said assistant sales manager Mike Wagoner.

“It’s been a little more difficult to get things shipped in there because a lot of trucks are being tied up with shipping emergency supplies,” he said. “And the price of trucks is dramatically higher because of the storm.”

He said because of logistical problems, some of the company’s traditional customers in the northeast had to turn to local vendors for their trees. Early mountain snows also delayed harvesting a bit.

About 95 percent of the Bottomley harvest is Fraser firs, which Wagoner called the perfect Christmas tree.

“It’s the prettiest and best-smelling tree, and it lasts the longest,” he said.

He’d get a bit of an argument from grower Charlie Tumbleston, who grows five acres of trees on his family farm on Johns Island near Charleston, S.C.

“Down here on the coast, the traditional Christmas tree was a cedar or a pine tree that happened to grow in the shape of a Christmas tree,” said Tumbleston, a photographer in his daily job. “That’s what we used a lot when I was a kid. Once people put up a Leyland cypress, that’s the only thing they want.”

That’s just what Gilbert Galle of Charleston is trying this year after visiting Tumbleston’s Noels Christmas Tree Farm and picking out a 6-footer. He moved to the area last year from Charlotte, N.C., where he said he always bought a Fraser fir.

“That was pretty much the only choice. This is my first time for a Leyland, and it’s very attractive,” he said.

But there is no denying the popularity of the Fraser fir, and Tumbleston also offers cut firs from the mountains for his customers.

In South Carolina, Christmas tree growing is about a second income and the joy of doing it, said Steve Penland, a York County grower and the executive secretary of the state Christmas Tree Association.

“You’re around that environment of families and kids, and to see that excitement in their eyes is awfully rewarding,” said Penland, whose tree farm helped send his kids through college. In South Carolina, growers were reporting sales up as much as 25 percent over last year during Thanksgiving weekend, he said.

At tree farms, it used to be people would simply walk out among the rows of trees and select a tree. Now, growers offer other activities like hay rides, bonfires, and hot chocolate and coffee.

“It’s a lot more than just cutting trees now. It’s about building traditions and memories,” Penland said.

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