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In The Pines: trees are big business in Grayson

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‘Tis the season when Christmas trees are being cut and shipped out of Grayson County by the tractor-trailer loads. It’s a complicated process, and benefits more people than might be apparent

By D.T. CLARK, Staff

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MOUTH OF WILSON – In the rural high country of western Grayson County, the earth trembles under the wheels of farm vehicles pulling loads of produce out of the fields, to one of several loading areas. From there, “big rigs” are hauling load after load of seasonal stuff to markets.

It started in October, when huge cardboard boxes of pumpkins rumbled towards town.

It continues as loads of cut Christmas trees, dug trees, bales of “tips” and boxes of wreaths and roping are moving out of the fields and to market or the workshop.

It will soon be over, as the wholesale Christmas market winds to a near-stop by Thanksgiving. By then, only those tree farms that focus on choose-and-cut operations will be working at height-of-season speed, and even they will be past their heyday by the second week in December, though some fields will be open until Christmas Eve.

Christmas trees and related products have become very big business indeed for Grayson and nearby counties. Growing conditions, geographic location and tradition all play a part in the business of Christmas trees.

Just How Big Is This Business?

Many people have noticed that fields of pumpkins have begun sprouting where before there were Christmas trees. Crop rotation and the benefits of selective succession may be part of the reason that erstwhile tree fields become great pumpkin patches, but probably more important is the convenience and economic success of “growing” the niche market of seasonal decorative crops.

Grayson County Extension Agent Kevin Spurlin explained it like this: “If you have a buyer who sets up a seasonal market stand to sell Christmas trees, it makes financial sense to him to rent the space for a few additional weeks leading into the Christmas season, and get into the Halloween and Thanksgiving seasonals, too.

“If he can work with one single producer, one who can supply top-quality products for the entire duration of his selling season, he’s ahead of the game.”

So, some Christmas tree growers have added pumpkins to their line.

Unlike the recent advent of pumpkins, Christmas tree and associated decorations production has a much longer history in our area. According to a Mount Rogers Tree Growers’ Association website, some of the first trees marketed from the Twin Counties were cut from what is now state park and national recreation area lands, in the early 1950s. They claim that some of these trees sold for as little as 50 cents.

The business slowly gained momentum, aided by the fact that Fraser firs replenished themselves on the high ridges around Whitetop and Mount Rogers. But in the early 1970s, much of the land that had been used as a nursery for Christmas trees was absorbed by the state park and national recreation area. Eventually, tree growers established their own seed orchards and assured themselves of an accessible source of tree seeds.

This year, at least 1 million Christmas trees, most of them Fraser firs, will be harvested from our area. A first-quality, six- to seven-foot Fraser fir will sell for $40 to $60, depending on where it’s purchased and how accurate the sellers are.

One local grower pointed out that the trees that he tags and sells as first-quality “six- to seven-footers” will retail for about $60 at a garden center, while large chain retailers often sell trees that are just under six feet tall (without a stand) as “six- to seven-footers” at a reduced price.

The number of trees, wreaths, pumpkins, bales of straw and coils of roping being shipped out of the Twin Counties is surprising, as they are sort of hidden from most folks’ view, but the number of trucks that are moving them cannot be missed. The season typically runs from Oct. 1 to the second week in December, and in those few weeks, a lot of material has to be gathered, loaded, moved to a staging location, re-loaded and hauled to markets, some of which are 500 or more miles away.

These days, the transportation of trees and associated products is one of the most prickly problems industry insiders have to deal with. Expenses have risen, and the differences in vehicle laws between states (particularly, between Virginia and North Carolina) are numerous and can be expensive, if trucks or trailers are ticketed for safety or identification violations.

Why Fraser Firs?

Fraser firs have been called “the Cadillac of Christmas Trees,” and the reasons are clear.

The first and most important reason is the Frasers’ resistance to drying out and the way they hold on to their needles for weeks. Not only does this make them less of a fire hazard, but they also look prettier for longer periods than other species.

The second reason is this species’ appealing natural shape, with the right proportion of height to width. Also, the firs’ branches grow with spaces in between so ornaments can hang artfully.

Fragrance is an important factor in a Fraser firs’ appeal. Many varieties of spruce either just naturally smell a little “off,” or develop a distinctly unpleasant odor once they’ve been cut or squashed, but Frasers have a fragrance that is among the most appealing of any tree.

For tree-growers, just as important as the trees’ beauty is the fact that Fraser firs ship exceptionally well. They can be baled with their branches bound tightly to their trunks, making it possible to load as many as 600 on a single trailer, and when the baling cord is cut, the limbs fall back into graceful shape almost immediately, without bending or breaking.

For all these characteristics, the Fraser is appreciated and sought-after. And because of that, growers can charge a premium price for the beautiful, fragrant, sturdy, and long-lasting Fraser fir trees.

The Perfect Christmas Tree

Our high country’s elevated altitude, cooler temperatures, generous rainfall and distinct seasons are ideal for spruce-type trees, and especially the native Fraser firs. But not every field can grow a graceful Christmas tree.

Elevation (height above sea level) affects how warm and how long the growing season is, which translates to (among other things) how quickly the soil is replenished with decomposed organic matter and minerals. Higher elevations mean cooler temperatures but also, often, drier conditions and thinner soils. The best elevation for Fraser firs seems to be between 3,000 and 4,500 feet.

There are other considerations related to the location, lay and orientation of the ground, including pests. Of these there are three kinds: plant, insect and animal. Sometimes humans are included in this category, when they trample, drive over or otherwise damage young trees in the field – particularly when the field is far from any watchful eyes and is easily reached by four-wheel-drive – or even steal market-sized trees for their own use or to sell.

The last consideration to be figured in to the decision of whether to plant Christmas trees in a particular location is logistics: How difficult will it be to use tractors in the field? Is there a staging area where trucks, tractors, trailers and maybe even bulldozers will be able to move around in late fall, when the ground is likely to be either muddy or icy? And how close is the field to a state-maintained road and/or highway, making transportation of the trees to the retail market feasible?

Who Benefits From The Christmas Tree Business?

Obviously, one of the groups that stands to be enriched by the Christmas tree business is the tree growers. There are more than a dozen growers working in the Twin Counties, though several are headquartered outside the local area, and they are expected to collect more than $20 million from sales of cut and dug trees this year.

The owners of the land that the growers rent or lease also reap income from this business.

Agreements reached between landowners and tree growers can vary as to prices, responsibilities and times periods, but a commonly-used system allows a grower to lease land from an owner for a modest price per acre/per year, for as long as trees are growing there. When the trees are cut, the grower pays the landowner an agreed-upon amount per tree; often, the amount is around $1.

Renting boundaries of productive, accessible land can generate income for the landowner ranging from a nice little boost to regular wages, to comfortable incomes, to truly significant money; but hardly anyone gets rich by leasing land to a tree grower.

After growers and landowners, probably the group who benefits most directly from the Christmas tree industry is the hourly workers who are employed either seasonally or year ‘round. Larger companies are likely to have several full-time employees to tend to the physical labor of setting young trees.

One grower’s estimate is that “more than a thousand” mostly-migrant workers are hired each year in Grayson County to do the seasonal work of shearing, cutting, baling and transporting trees from the fields to shipping centers, and loading trees onto the big rigs, ready for shipment to retail outlets. Hourly wages for these workers start at $11.27 per hour.

Independent contractors who depend on the Christmas tree industry include truck drivers and people who purchase or collect pine “tips” and craft them into wreaths, roping and other decorative pieces for sale to the public or to wholesalers.

Another group for whom the Christmas tree industry is a mainstay is the machine- and equipment-suppliers who provide tractors (often large and four-wheel-drive), trailers (specially sized and configured to optimize the number of cut or dug trees that can be moved in one load), balers and baling cord and other supplies necessary for tree production. This can be done as straight-out purchases or through rental agreements.

The final easily-identified group of beneficiaries is the local retail businesses that provide products and services for tree workers and growers. They provide housing for migrant workers. They are mechanics who work on the tractors, trucks and equipment required for the industry. They own the community stores where workers buy groceries, lunches, boots and jackets, snacks, gasoline for their private vehicles and lottery tickets.

One of these is Sarah Titlebaum, owner/operator of the Fox Creek Store in Grant, who says tree workers are one of the slices in the pie that is her year-round retail business.

“There’s always something going on that brings customers into my store, but this time of year, one of the of the big factors is tree workers,” she said.

For the Twin Counties and Grayson in particular, the production of seasonal decorative crops and particularly Christmas trees, is a big part of the local economy; it’s becoming even more important as other crops and industries fall away. It fits reasonably well with another growing business, tourism and contributes to the area’s image as a naturally scenic, rural destination.

For many residents, the rumble of trucks carrying trees in and out of our communities is reassuring, telling a tale of honest, if physically demanding, work and money coming in.

The money may come from the sale of trees and pumpkins, from working to produce those crops, from contracting to haul them to markets or from selling goods and services to people who work in the trees.

However it comes, what it helps make happen is, good lives, right here in the place where we want to live them.