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Chapter 8: The Last Twenty Years

“It’s a pretty good trade, so to speak. Farmers in western North Carolina swap fresh, green, native-grown Christmas trees for that other traditional holiday green stuff – money.” From “‘The Cadillac of Christmas trees’ big business in area” by Sandy Wall, Asheville Citizen-Times, November 25, 1996.
I feel very strongly that history plays a very important role in knowing how this industry works and that historical insight plays a key factor in anticipating and envisioning the future.” From “The Future of the Christmas Tree Industry” by Gary Reiseen, American Christmas Tree Journal. 40 (4), p. 15.

The Changing Face of the Christmas Tree Industry

By 1990, the NCCTA had been around for more than 30 years. The Fraser fir Christmas tree industry was well established. Frasers had taken over an approximately 15% of the market share in the US market – a ratio that has only slightly increased to this day. Many looked at the industry and thought like Sandy Wall, quoted above, that growers had it pretty easy, swapping trees for money. By 1995, North Carolina ranked third in the U.S. in Christmas tree sales, behind the Pacific Northwest and Michigan (Warren, 1995). Where once Christmas tree growers could barely get a loan, now it was viewed as an important industry. Everyone knew how to plant, shear and grow Christmas trees. The seed supply was secure. Balsam woolly adelgid had not killed off all the Fraser fir in the mountains. No one laughed anymore if you told them you were a Christmas tree grower. The challenges of the early years had been overcome. But there were new challenges.

These challenges were summarized in part in 1996, by Anne Kirk Davis. As part of the third generation of the Kirk Company which had been in the Christmas business, at the time the article was written, for nearly 80 years, Davis wrote about changes to the Christmas tree industry.

Gone are the days of the 60s, 70s and early 80s which produced such rich rewards for a number of highly capable growers. The first species to be affected was the Douglas-fir. Prices, in some cases, are even lower than 10 years ago. Two years later, Scotch pine took a nose dive and its prices are generally less than 10 years ago.

To add to the woes of selling under-priced trees, the market place has changed. This has led to a further decline in prices. Years ago, the majority of cut trees were sold through fund raising clubs, local nurseries and garden stores, independent lot owners and choose and cut farms.

Today, that has all changed. While choose and cut sales have increased and held steady at about one-fourth of the market, the majority of trees are distributed through large chain stores. They buy for the price and have the clout to demand service along with offering low prices… Successful growers have had to tighten their belts and develop totally new marketing strategies (Davis, 1996, p. 10-11).

The changing face of the Christmas tree industry was also described by Renee Campbell in her message as the new President’s message in Limbs & Needles:

As a new president of the NCCTA I am excited about leading our association through the start of the 21st century. Things have changed so much over the years. What used to be an industry that flourished without a great amount of effort has now progressed to one that is highly competitive, more regulated by the government, and technologically advancing beyond record (Campbell, 2000, p. 2).

The changing issues with Christmas tree production were reflected at the national level. For instance, in the October 1990 issue of the American Christmas Tree Journal (volume 34, No. 4), articles included issues with estate planning and migrant worker laws, topics which had never been discussed previously.

The changes in the market were also discussed by Gary Reissen, and though he was writing in 1996, his words hold true in 2009:

Historically, we thought of the Christmas tree as being recession proof. When things got tough economically, families pulled together and traditional values were very important. Under that assumption we should have been coming off good years relative to the rest of the economy.

However, when you combine an economic recession with the oversupply our industry has been experiencing, the result is what we’ve been up against for the last few years.

This has left the majority of Christmas tree industry psychologically depressed and it has helped cause an industry that is based on long term production and future planning to be short-sighted and reactionary (Reissen, 1996, p. 15).

Davis wrote in 1996 that Fraser fir was an exception to issues of oversupply. In that same issue of the American Christmas Tree Journal, Reiseen predicted that “Fraser fir will be the most popular tree and will increase to 30 to 35 percent of the nationwide market from its current 15 percent share. Not only is Fraser fir preferred by consumers but it is a preferred species by producers due to its ability to produce 90 percent top quality trees in relatively a short rotation period. Although an intensive species to grow, Fraser fir responds well to skilled care and cultural practices” (Riessen, 1996, p. 20).

Riessen also made the following predictions in 1996 about the 2005 Christmas tree farm.

The Christmas tree producer of 2005 will be an educated, sophisticated, committed, and enthusiastic business person who will have the passion, intuitiveness, and vision to interpret the endless supply of information in order to produce the right type of high quality product for the market (Riessen, 1996, p. 19).

The conifer operation of 2005 will build on the image of being the ultimate in environmentally sound agriculture production. Christmas trees will be recognized as one of the most environmentally friendly crops (Riessen, 1996, p. 21).

The rise in importance of the Internet has resulted in an endless supply of information. However, Christmas trees have not always been recognized as environmentally friendly, and this constituted one of the debates that continues to this day.

The industry was strong, but was it sustainable? In the early 1990s, North Carolina growers complained of fields that had once grown good trees where tree growth was not what it once was. Phytophthora root rot was a problem that had never really been solved and good Christmas tree land was being lost to production. Simazine, the herbicide introduced in the 1960s was becoming a problem environmentally. There were many issues with the both the Hispanic farm labor and the pesticides that most growers had come to depend on. The national popularity of Fraser fir was resulting in it being grown more frequently in other states that didn’t have to contend with steep mountain land. And though Christmas tree production was still profitable, unlike many other agricultural commodities in the 1990s, profit margins weren’t what they once were and some growers were forced out of business. Finding solutions to these new problems would occupy the industry for the next twenty years.

Fraser Fir Promotional Committee Begins

The North Carolina Christmas Tree Association started in fir country. Now in 1990, the Fraser fir Promotional Committee was getting started to help meet some of the challenges in marketing.

The first meeting of the Fraser Fir Committee was June 10, 1990, in Boone. Present were Richard Woodie, NCCTA President, Ken Sexton, Sam Cartner, John Wagoner, Wayne Ayers, Waightstill Avery, Dale Shepherd, Harry Yates, Howard Love, Cline Church and Hal Gimlin. Absent from the meeting was Jerry Shore, Bruner Sides, Mike Francis, J. Schoeber, Jack Wiseman, and Doug Clark.

It was decided that committee members would serve terms of three years and would represent the various counties. Trade show attendance and other promotional items were also discussed. Banners promoting Fraser fir and items describing how to care of a real Christmas tree to be used in sales areas were some of the items produced through the efforts of the Promotional Committee.

In 1997 the Promotional Committee voted to include a Choose and Cut Committee in its structure.

Eastern North Carolina Christmas Tree Grower’s Association Started

There had been concerns voiced through the years about how much time was being spent on Fraser fir versus other species. Fraser fir growers felt there wasn’t enough time spent. Growers outside the mountains felt just the opposite. The notes of the September 15, 1988 Board of Directors Meeting had the following:

Tom Shaw, a new member of the association from Goldsboro, was introduced. Mr. Shaw had asked for a place on the meeting agenda to express the desire for the NCCTA to work more closely with Christmas tree producers in the eastern part of the state. Some of the possibilities mentioned were getting back to holding a pine meeting in the eastern area, including equipment displays and demonstrations geared toward pine and cedar producers in any such meetings, forming a committee to look into marketing pine and cedar and possibly trading trees between eastern producers and western producers. James Wright Jackson, Bill Huxster, and Ralph Sasser were appointed to serve as a committee with executive director Bob Garner to look into these concerns, make recommendations and report back to the board (Wagoner, 1988, September 15).

With the renewed emphasis on Fraser fir created by the promotional committee, it was decided to form the Eastern North Carolina Christmas Tree Grower’s Association in January 1990. Ralph Sasser, a former County Extension Agent before retiring as a District Extension Chairman, was instrumental in the establishment and running of the new organization (“Mr. Ralph” Sasser honored, 2001). Sasser was inducted into The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest service award, in 2000.

The ENCCTGA frequently presented information about their educational meetings and other Association news in Limbs & Needles.

Other Changes to the NCCTA through the Years

Pat Thiel, later marrying to become Pat Wilkie, was hired early in 1990 to take over as Executive Secretary.  With a background in marketing and accounting, including the position of marketing director for a Florida helicopter and aerial photography company and a ski magazine, Thiel brought a great deal of enthusiasm to her position, helping the association as it moved to greater emphasis on Fraser fir (Thiel, 1990). Through the eleven and a half years at the head of the organization, Thiel helped the organization develop the format for the NCCTA meetings with a two-day winter meeting held in Boone, and a two-day summer meeting held in either Alleghany, Ashe, Watauga, Avery, Mitchell or Jackson Counties. The board meeting and Fraser fir promotional committee meeting are always held the Thursday before the Association meeting. Thiel also helped develop the first web site, and brought about changes to Limbs & Needles, helping to give it a more sophisticated look. The magazine went to a color jacket in the fall of 1995 and to full color photographs in the text the fall of 1998. She also helped the NCCTA work more closely with the National Association. She resigned June 15, 2001, to pursue a career in real estate.

Linda Gragg took over the position, August 2001. Gragg, a retired math teacher, wanted to return to her home in Watauga County. Gragg had developed marketing and organizational skills working at her high school, having been in charge of all school events from prom to graduation and in the school’s fund raising activities. Gragg helped the Association seek grant money for further marketing efforts. Along with Bill Glenn, the NCDA marketing specialist in western North Carolina, she helped brand Fraser fir as “the Perfect Christmas tree,” with the slogan, which had been designed in 2001 when Pat Wilkie was Executive Director, officially registered in 2003 at the Secretary of State’s Office. This would make the first change to the NCCTA emblem in more than twenty years. The web site was also overhauled, as well as choose and cut promotions. Gragg also helped get the designation through Phillip Frye of Fraser fir as the state’s official Christmas tree. Gragg retired at the end of 2009.

1998 National Convention

The NCCTA hosted the 1998 NCTA national convention August 5-8 in Asheville with the theme, “Meet me in the Mountains.” The keynote address was given by Steve Drake with the NCTA as he unveiled the 1998 Real Tree Campaign. This was followed by the history of the NC Christmas tree industry presented by Tommy Beutell. The other North Carolina Christmas tree growers that addressed the group were Tom and Vickie Sawyer who spoke on producing value-added productions.

Scientific presentations were given by several members of the Christmas tree community in North Carolina. Dr. J. Dan Pattillo of Western Carolina University gave a presentation on the history and ecology of Fraser fir. Dr. Greg Jennings with NCSU talked about the impact of Christmas trees on water quality. Dr. Ron Newton from East Carolina University spoke on the role of biotechnology in Christmas trees. Dr. Craig McKinley talked about the direction of the Christmas tree industry. Dr. Ed Cordell, retired plant pathologist with the U.S. Forest Service, gave information on mycorrhizae that can be used for Christmas tree production. Dr. Jill Sidebottom gave a talk on integrated pest management.

There were three farm tours associated with the meeting that went into either Jackson, Mitchell or Avery Counties. The Jackson County tour visited several sites owned by Wolf Creek Tree Farm & Nursery run by Tommy Beutell and his family. The other farm visited was Lois and Bob Abel’s, which also contained trees owned by Marvin Smith. The Mitchell County tour visited several farms owned by Wayne Ayers and his sons and Roan Mountain. The Avery County tour visited Three Oaks Ltd. Tree Farm, Nursery, and Gift Shop owned by the Wisemans. The tour ended at Cartner Tree Farm owned by Sam and Margaret Cartner and sons, David, Jim, and Sam.

Committee members were as follows:

  1. Convention co-chairs: H. Peter Wood, Harry Yates
  2. Program co-chairs: Craig McKinley, Tim Moser
  3. Local arrangements: Pat Wilkie
  4. Special programs: Pam Johnson
  5. Finance: Dale Shepherd
  6. Farm tours: Sam and David Cartner
  7. Exhibits: John Weaver
  8. Transportation: Fletcher Spillman
  9. Tree contest: Wayne Ayers
  10. Wreath contest: Bill Rettew
  11. Registration: Ellen Church
  12. Publicity & promotion: Renee and Barry Campbell
  13. Catering: Linda Sides
  14. Receptions: Bill Glenn, Scott Porter
  15. Theme night: Bonnie Sides
  16. Banquet: Margaret Cartner
  17. Spouse Tours: Wilma Trivett
  18. Youth programs: Debbie Fishel
  19. Area tours: Waightstill Avery
  20. Sponsorships: Charles Parker, Greg Sexton
  21. Communications contest: Earl Deal
  22. Signage: Greg Moore
  23. Gallery of trees: Diane Deal

The National Christmas Tree Association voted to have annual instead of a biennial convention in 2007. North Carolina, along with Virginia, is to host the national convention again in 2010.

Many Changes in Personnel in the Last 20 Years

Bill Huxster’s white cowboy hat had become such a given at NCCTA meetings, it was hard to believe when he retired in January of 1993. In the Limbs & Needles article announcing Huxster’s retirement, the following is written:

Two of his many contributions are the development of foliar nutrient feeding to improve the quality of trees and the use of colorant to make the trees more marketable. Huxster’s demonstrations on shaping, use of colorants, basal pruning, gene pool selection and grafting reached over 625 North Carolina growers in one year alone. His expertise has made him a national authority on Christmas tree production and he is regularly asked to make presentations for professionals throughout the United States and Canada. In May of 1992, Bill was awarded the North Carolina State University Outstanding Extension Service Award (Our Christmas tree guru retires!, 1993, p. 19).

Craig McKinley was hired to replace Huxster in 1994. Jim McGraw, Walt Skroch, Jim Baker, who had been the extension entomologist, and Jim Shelton would follow in retirement in the 1990s, marking quite a change in NCSU personnel.

A Christmas tree research fund was started in connection with the NC Forestry Foundation in 2004 to help NCCTA raise funds for Christmas tree research in North Carolina. When fully endowed, there will be $6,000 or more a year annually for research (Research Endowment – $210,000 pledged, 2007).

Trees to the White House for the Past Twenty Years

Probably the most important way that Fraser fir was promoted was through North Carolina growers sending trees to the White House. There were four Christmas tree farms in western North Carolina to send a tree to the White House in the 1990s and three winners in the 2000s.

Bruce and Michael Lacey sent a tree to the White House in 1990. According to an article in the NCSU Alumni Magazine (Michael holds a B.S. in civil engineering in 1973 from NCSU), their farm was a part-time venture for the brothers, though their farther, S. B. Lacey Jr., had started the farm earlier. “Michael Lacey is a real estate broker and surveyor, and Bruce is an attorney.” The desired tree for the Blue Room was 18 ½ feet with strong branches, which the brothers did not have on their farm.

To fill the White House order, “Bruce went scouting around the county to find a tree,” said Lacey. What he found was a well-tended, routinely sheared tree in the back yard of Corbett Johnson. The tree was originally the Johnson family’s first Christmas tree in its Crossnore home 21 years ago. Johnson planted the tree by his back door, and as a Christmas tree grower himself, tended and tapered the tree for over two decades (Adorning the White House: Alum furnishes first family fir, 1991, p. 28).

A November 29 article in The Charlotte Observer reported that, “Danny Gouge of Burnsville donated a flatbed truck and volunteered to drive the fir to Washington. Gouge has experience in such pilgrimages: He also recently drove a load of broccoli to George Bush as the president said he disliked the vegetable.” The Lacey’s also picked out a tree from their own farm for the Oval Office. According to the Alumni magazine’s article, “President Bush is the first U.S. president to have a tree in the Oval Office. The tree is decorated with homemade cookies and candy canes, and the President offers his office guests a treat from the tree, said Lacey.” According to a Carolina Farmer article, “Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham notes that 1990 is the first time the state provided both the White House turkey and the White House Christmas trees in the same year.”

One interesting quote came out of the trip. Sherriff’s Deputy R.L. Duss scoffed, “Ain’t but 100,000 trees going out of Avery County this time of year,” as he directed traffic. “Cutti’ down one tree don’t look like no big news to me” (Fischer, 1990). As the tree moved past the Avery High School on its way to the White House, students formed a living Christmas tree (Cantrell, 1990).

Bruce Lacey also had this to say about the experience:

“There’s something about growing Christmas trees that’s so rewarding. We’ve provided happiness for so many people and now we’re providing it to the First Family,” said Bruce. “This tree is a special part of the holiday season that the President and his family will see everyday. That’s a nice kind of feeling.” (Weiss, 1991, p. 30).

Bruce Lacey still recalls going into the Oval office and meeting President Bush. Though their trees are still a part-time venture for the brothers, they will never forget the opportunity it gave to take a family tree to the First Family.

Wayne Ayers took the tree to the White House in 1993. The entire saga from cutting the tree to the White House presentation was followed on national television through live interviews with Charlie Gibson on Good Morning America. Ayers proved to be the perfect spokesperson, his banter with Gibson putting a human and humorous face to the farmer who grows trees. “Media attention has been widespread. Ayers said that he has had customers call him from Florida and tell him that he was on the front page of their newspaper” (Ashurst, A., 1993). The 17-year-old tree was one that Ayers had grown himself.

Alice Atwood, Danny Dollar and Ron Hudler partnered in taking the tree to the White House in 1995. Atwood explained to Mrs. Clinton that:

Each Christmas tree, wreath, and garland from Ashe County, N.C., contained a message. Each year, one or two teachers from each of the seven schools in the county provide laminated tags for the trees, wreaths, and garland, including the White House tree. Atwood noted, “These notes are individually written by the students and sent all over the United States with the trees. Many times, the children will receive replies from the people who find them” (“We’re real tree people!” Clintons continue White House tree tradition, 1996).

Sanford and Debbie Fishel took the tree to the White House in 1997. The Fishels had made the decision to grow Christmas trees full-time because they thought it would be a business they could do together as a family. Their two daughters and both of their parents accompanied them to the White House where they were treated to a full day. Nicoloden did a piece with the Fishel girls on tree farming. Fishel remembers that when they were searched before entering the White House, he had a pocket knife on him, which they allowed him to keep with him. He muses now that they never would have allowed him to keep it today. The White House staff asked them the one place they would like to see, with only the private quarters of the family being off limits. Debbie Fishel, being interested in cooking and in fact now adding the making of chicken pies to the family business, asked to see the kitchen. Later, they had lunch with Bill, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton and Erskine Bowles. Debbie’s father began talking to them about golf, and the President showed him his putter. The Fischels would always remember the trip as a difficult one, as they were gone during the peak of shipping, but one they were honored to share with their parents and their children.

Earl, Betsy and their son Buddy Deal were the first growers from North Carolina in the new century to take a tree to the White House, having that honor in 2005. The tree was presented to Mrs. Bush on a horse-drawn carriage. But with the band playing and all the activity, the horses didn’t quite make it up to the spot where they were supposed to be. Buddy Deal relates that the First Lady thought nothing of stepping over, taking the horse’s harness, and leading them to where they needed to be, proving that she was a true Texas girl. The tree was delivered in a specially designed trailer, donated by Steve Troxler, Agriculture Commissioner in North Carolina, advertising the Fraser fir as the Perfect Christmas tree.

Joe Freeman has won both state and national contests many times for wreath production. But his winning white pine in 2006 would allow him to take a tree to the White House in 2007. “To represent North Carolina and the entire Christmas Tree industry is such an honor,” said Freeman. “I still can’t quite believe it. Only one tree out of the 30 million plus sold across America ends up being the Official White House Christmas Tree” (White House Christmas Tree: 2008).

That year, for the first time, a matching team of Belgian draft horses, “Karry” and “Dempsey” from Meadow Acres Farm in Brandy Station delivered the White House tree (Belgian horse team delivers white house Christmas tree, 2007). The wagon and horses, driven by Scott Harmon, are used to give hayrides and pull wedding carriages.

The very next year, partners Jessie Davis and Rusty Estes of River Ridge Tree Farms in Creston took another tree to the White House. According to Davis, getting to put the tree in the White House, “I would have to say it was getting up there close to winning the Super Bowl” (Learn about the White House Christmas tree, 2008). There were 29 trees throughout the White House, all from North Carolina, and the main trees was decorated with red, white and blue ornaments created by people throughout the US, artists ranging from 8 to 90 years old.

1998 Capitol Christmas Tree

In 1998 North Carolina once again sent a Christmas tree for the Capitol Christmas tree. This year it was commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birthplace of American Forestry. The 50-foot tree was selected from Mitchell County.

The Fraser fir will be airlifted out November 14 (or the first good weather day thereafter).

Loaded on a flatbed outside Bakersville, the 27-year old People’s Tree will then go on display in the county seat until November 20, when it takes off on a tour of North Carolina and Virginia before arriving in Washington November 30.

The lighting ceremony will be held on December 8.

Without federal funding for the project, a partnership of sponsors formed once the tree was selected to not only create events around its selection, but arrange for transport, decoration and publicity.

Sponsors include North Carolina National Forests, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, N.C. Christmas Tree Association, N.C. Forestry Association, Cradle of Forestry, and the Office of the Governor.

The First Lady of North Carolina, Carolyn Hunt, has been selected to serve as honorary Chairwoman of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Drive, which has collected over 4,000 handmade tree ornaments, all made in the Tar Heel State (Tagner, 1998).

Counting Trees: Documenting Industry Growth through the Years

So how many Christmas trees are there out there in North Carolina? It’s been a question that has never been satisfactorily answered. For one thing, many sales of Christmas trees are cash sales, which do not always result in accurate reporting for taxes. Estimates of Christmas tree acreage have been hampered because of partnerships between farmers which can lead to double reporting. The following are some of the surveys that have been conducted over the past 20 years.

1997 NCDA&CS Survey

In 1997, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services conducted a thorough survey of Christmas tree inventory in the state. The following are results from that study.

North Carolina’s Christmas trees inventory during 1997 is estimated at 34.2 million trees on 23,530 acres. Ashe County led the state with 9.8 million trees on 6,500 acres, followed by Avery with 7.9 million trees on 5,100 acres and Alleghany with 6.5 million on 4,500 acres.

Of the estimated 1,600 Christmas tree growers, two-thirds have operations with less than 10 acres of trees, averaging 3 acres of trees per operation. The 60 largest growers, operations having 100 or more acres, account for 51% of the Christmas tree inventory. The average Christmas tree operation in North Carolina has 15 acres of trees with 1,452 trees on each acre.

The 1996 cash receipts from Christmas trees totaled $78 million for North Carolina. Tree sales were valued at $72 million with wreaths, roping and greenery valued at $6.0 million. The top 5 counties in sales were Ashe, Avery, Alleghany, Watauga and Jackson. These 5 counties accounted for 88% of North Carolina’s tree sales in 1996 (Agricultural statistics – Christmas trees, 1998).

Many thought the survey underestimated the number of trees and tree acreage. However, this was the first comprehensive survey of Christmas tree production in the state.

Planting Survey

Jeff Owen, who became area extension specialist for Christmas trees with NCSU in 1995, was asked by the NCCTA in the fall of 2003 to help conduct a planting/production survey of North Carolina growers to determine if people were planting more trees. The survey only had 4 questions: how many Fraser fir were set each year from 1998 to 2003 and how many would be set in 2004; the average percentage of trees harvested; whether plans were to increase or decrease planting in 2004, 2005 and 2006; and whether or not your neighbors were increasing or decreasing production. There were 1,785 surveys that were mailed out and 352 tree growers responded. Results indicated that the number of trees planted per grower increased from 1998 to 2003. Owen estimated that the planting increased from 5.8 to 7.5 million trees (Owen, 2004).

Census of Agriculture

The 2002 Census of Agriculture for the first time included Christmas trees as an agricultural commodity with the 2007 Census of Agriculture allowing a follow-up comparison. In 2002, North Carolina was reported to have 1,528 Christmas tree farms producing 30,694 acres of Christmas trees and cutting 2,915,507 trees off of 1,003 farms. In 2007 the values were 1,251 Christmas tree farms producing 37,653 acres and cutting 3,085,383 trees off of 922 farms. This would make NC the 3rd largest Christmas tree producing state in terms of acreage (Cut Christmas trees: 2007 and 2002, 2008).

NCDA&CS Christmas Tree Buyer Survey

In 2001 the NCDA&CS Marketing Division in association with the NCCTA conducted a survey of Christmas tree buyers from around the country. There were 864 respondents. The majority were for independent garden centers. According to the survey, Fraser fir ranked second in terms of average wholesale price and retail price behind noble fir. Average wholesale prices for a 6-7 foot US #1 Fraser fir were $22.24 and that same tree retailed for an average of $43.00. The same size noble fir averaged $25.25 wholesale and $49.88 retail. Average prices for a 7-8 foot US #1 were Fraser – $26.68 wholesale and $53.16 retail and Nobel fir $32.13 – wholesale and $68.16 retail (Evaluation of competitive position of the Fraser fir Christmas tree, 2001).

Market Expansion

Tommy Beutell was one of the growers who was part of a task force with the NCTA to increase the market for Christmas tree starting in 2003 (Helmsing, 2004). Others such as Harry Yates, Ron Hudler, and Cline Church would also serve in the NCTA as the National Association battled to determine how to increase the market share of real trees.

From 1996 through 2003, in households with Christmas trees, the percentage of those with real trees steadily declined (Drake, 2004). In 2003, the NCCTA applied for and received a federal grant to help conduct a study of consumer preferences for Christmas trees. Several barriers to purchasing a real tree were discussed by Drake, including consumer’s opinions that real trees were messy and inconvenient, and families were often either not home at Christmas, no longer had children, or were too busy to set up a real tree.

Because of continued marketing concerns and “the continuing struggle to fund a successful national Christmas tree promotion program with voluntary donations” (Checkoff marketing order study, 2008, p. 8), in 2008, growers with the National Association developed an industry-wide Checkoff Study Task Force. A national checkoff would be administered by a special board under the direction of the USDA and would require Christmas tree growers of a certain size to provide funds for promotion, marketing and research. Other commodities such as eggs, milk, and beef already had such a program. In 2009, the NCTA voted to request the USDA to develop such a program.

Research Task Force

Changes in Christmas tree marketing were not the only issues facing North Carolina Christmas tree growers. Many were finding it harder to grow quality trees. In February 1995 the Christmas tree overview with NCSU was presented with a problem on many growers minds. When fields were in later rotations, it seemed that trees didn’t perform as well and that Phytophthora root rot was more of a problem. According to a 1996 article in Limbs and Needles by Craig McKinley, “In response, Dr. Johnny Wynne, Director, NC Agricultural Research Service, formed a task force of Extension faculty, University scientists, and NC Department of Agriculture personnel to develop a formalized plan for investigating this issue. The group met several times in 1995-1996, including on-site visits to several farms in the mountains.”

The task force group focused on soil and site factors affecting both tree growth and disease development. Disease spread was monitored over time. Site factors including condition of the topsoil and subsoil were often associated with poor growth and disease.

Genetics a Route to Higher Quality

In 1991, J. B. Jett was finishing his progeny tests. Trees had been growing at the three sites at Bald Mountain, Crossnore and Purchase Knob for eight years. To put an economic value on differences in growth, individual Christmas tree growers that had retail lots were invited to examine each tree and decide how much they would sell it for in their respective markets, based on each tree’s size and appearance. The resulting data demonstrated that the most important traits of Fraser fir, such as how tall they grew, how straight, and how full, were highly heritable and would tremendously increase the value of trees. This means that if the best parents are bred together, their offspring would be superior Christmas trees. Based on 1991 pricing, the potential difference between the best and worse seed sources could yield as much as $2,300 difference in market value per acre.

The most widely used seed source, Roan Mountain, was determined to be one of the poorer sources while the trees from Richland Balsam were some of the best. Seeds taken from trees found at lower elevation also produced faster growing trees.

Over 100 of the best trees were selected and preserved by grafting them into a clone bank at the seed orchard in Macon County. However, additional trees were preserved as well to help maintain the limited genetic diversity in Fraser fir.

In 1994 there was an exceptionally good cone crop. Jett and others including Steve McKeand, Floyd Bridgwater, Craig McKinley and R.J. Arnold collected seed in as many areas as possible to preserve the genetic variation in Fraser fir and establish additional progeny tests. From September 6 to September 24, half a million seeds were collected from six locations and 528 parent trees. At the time, Fraser fir was listed in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Federal Register of Threatened Wildlife and Plants as a Category II species – meaning the species showed signs of decline.

To make use of this genetic material, a Christmas tree geneticist, John Frampton, was hired in 1996. Part of Frampton’s job was to make use of this genetic material to create genetically superior Christmas trees.

Growers in the NCCTA Research Committee starting discussing the possibility of utilizing the superior genetics from 30 clones – 15 from Clingman’s Dome, 7 from Mt. Rogers, 5 from Richland Balsam and 2 from Roan Mountain – identified at NCSU, by forming a seed cooperative in 1999. In the fall of 2000, the North Carolina Premium Fraser Fir Seed Cooperative was formed with Articles of Incorporation and bylaws. The seed orchard was established on a farm in Ashe County owned by Dr Richard Calhoun. Membership cost $3,000, and was limited to 60 growers, who would have first use of the superior seed. Membership was accepted through 2003. Grafting was made in 2001 and these were lifted and planted in 2002. The NCPFFS Coop entered into a licensing agreement with NCSU to exclusively use the Fraser fir selections from the 1983 provenance-progeny test series (Frampton & McKinney, 2001). The first crop of seeds was collected from 5 of the clones in 2008 (Frampton, personal communication). The seeds will be collected from clones to keep things straight. These will eventually be tested to help coop members determine which ones are best and which to remove.

In addition to the Seed Cooperative, the North Carolina Forest Service was making changes to their seed orchards. The original Lodge Orchard was declining and was cut down to prepare for a new orchard that was grafted in the spring of 2004. “There are 12 selections that will replace the original orchard. These were made from six selections of the Lodge and six selections from the North Carolina State University Macon County provenance study. Most of the trees from the Lodge have been tested in progenies, but some died out and never were tested the four times required to test a tree” (Leggins, 2009).

From September 24 to October 21, 2005, Frampton traveled with Fikret Isik, Research Assistant Professor with the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, to collect Turkish fir seedlings in Turkey. Turkish fir is somewhat resistant to Phytophtora root rot, though individual trees vary greatly in their resistance. To capture the genetic variation of the species and to hopefully identify families that are more resistant, cones from both Turkish and Trojan fir were collected with a total of 123 trees being sampled. Seedlings were evaluated in 2007 where roughly 90% of the variation in Phytophthora-induced mortality was due to genetics.

Continued Bad Press Addressed by Integrated Pest Management

No matter how it was counted, Fraser fir production in western North Carolina was a big industry. But not everyone was happy about it. Increasingly there were concerns about increased rates of cancer in Christmas tree producing areas, and the effects of pesticide use. These issues of environmental stewardship and sustainability would drive changes of production practices through the last twenty years.

One issue was the insecticides being used, many of which were older materials with issues of toxicity or other environmental hazards. One issue was Di-Syston 15G, a granular insecticide used by many growers in the 1980s to control the balsam twig aphid and spruce spider mite. Di-Syston, first approved for sale in the US in 1976 (Kegley et. al., 2000), was used by cabbage growers to control worms in cabbage heads by putting a spoonful on each developing cabbage head. Christmas tree growers who were having problems controlling twig aphids in the late 1970s decided to try the same technique, throwing a teaspoon full into every tree. Allan McMurray remembers growers starting to use this product in the late 1970s. However, the Di-Syston 15G label required it to be incorporated into the soil which Christmas tree growers could not do.

The County Manager of Ashe County, Larry South, asked the NCDA to investigate pesticide use in Ashe County. John L. Smith, Pesticide Administrator for the NCDA sent following to South:

The staff reports no specific violations, however, there was an expression of concern about the possible misapplication of the granular form of disulfoton in Christmas tree production areas. There are indications that the product is not, in some cases, being “soil incorporated and watered thoroughly” as required by labeling (Smith, 1986).

The following year, several Christmas tree growers were fined by the NCDA for using Di-Syston 15 G in their trees for twig aphid control. One grower, Ken Sexton, was reported as telling the Pesticide Board that they might was well make plans to fine him the following year as he had nothing else to control the pest with. That resulted in the Board deciding to fund a 2-year position through the Extension Forestry department at NCSU working under Jim McGraw to look into alternatives for Di-Syston use and to help growers implement integrated pest management practices. Jill Sidebottom was hired into this position in November 1988. The position ended up being fully funded, making it a permanent position in the early 1990s.

One of the major tenets of integrated pest management is to manage pests based on field observation and scouting. Sidebottom’s initial work with scouting was based on Hain’s 4-S spider mite sampling system. Jeff Owen, County Extension Agent in Avery County, encouraged by Dr. Mike Linker, IPM coordinator at NCSU, applied for and received grant money in 1990 to start up an IPM program in the county. Owen often remarked afterwards that no grower came to him begging for an IPM program, but many growers were asking for ways to grow better trees. IPM seemed the best umbrella to pull together all the aspects – from prescription fertility to pest scouting to ground cover management – to do just that.

Doug Hundley was hired in 1991 through grant money as the IPM technician and scout. He signed a contract with growers to scout their fields with them with growers initially paying $20 an acre for the program. In that way, scouting techniques that had been originally developed for spider mites by Dr. Fred Hain in the 1970s started to be used in a practical way by growers.

The program was eventually funded through the Avery County budget. In the 1991-1992 budget, $2,000 was set aside for the program and in the 1992-1993 budget, $11,000 was appropriated (Avery County is tops in Christmas trees, 1993). The IPM program continued to bring positive press to the Christmas tree industry throughout the 1990s (Elliott, 1993).

A second IPM technician was hired in Alleghany, Ashe and Watauga Counties initially through the New River Watershed Tree BMP project which was an EPA 319 water quality grant administered by Dr. Jim Rideout, a soil scientist who had replaced Jim Shelton (Rideout, 2000).Bryan Davis worked with growers in a similar manner to Hundley, providing growers the one-on-one help needed to make important shifts in production practices.

One of the most important shifts that occurred was in ground cover management. Managing weeds had always been a problem for Christmas tree growers until they started using herbicides like Simazine, and to a limited extent Atrazine, to control weeds. Between the use of these pre-emergent herbicides in the spring – often at higher than labeled rates to overcome the buffering effect of high organic matter soils, and Roundup, a post-emergent herbicide to clean up fields in the fall, many growers were able keep the ground free from all weeds. This type of ground cover management often referred to as “bare ground” was widely used.

But there were problems, not the least of which was erosion. Shallow, steep mountain soils could not stand having no vegetation, and gullies sometimes developed in fields. Simazine could damage tree roots, resulting in poorer growth and off-color trees. Bare ground was hotter in the summer, and Fraser fir, which is a shallow rooted tree, would grow deeper in the soil where fertilizers applied to the surface didn’t reach them. But mowing wasn’t any better as that just allowed for the growth of grass which is a major competitor of tree roots.

Walt Skroch and his student, Stu Warren, began to look at alternative ways of managing weed growth. In the end, they developed a method of treating ground covers with pre-emergent herbicides that could be applied with backpack sprayers, walking up and down tree rows. The herbicide mix which could contain any one of the following three – Goal, Stinger and Vantage, could be sprayed over the top of Fraser fir foliage without damaging it, but would successfully stunt grasses and weeds. The new technique was called “chemical mowing.”

These changes couldn’t have come at a better time. Concerns about pesticide use continued to be voiced in the media.

The issue of stewardship came into the forefront following a well contamination that made national news. An old hand-dug well in Avery County was found to be contaminated with Simazine, a triazine herbicide frequently used as a pre-emergent herbicide in Fraser fir Christmas trees. Several surrounding wells were also found to have Simazine, and could not be used for several months. During that time, another triazine herbicide, Atrazine, was also found in ground water in many areas through the country, and was even documented in rainwater.

The company that was manufacturing Simazine at the time, Ciba-Geigy which had offices in Greensboro, provided money for Dr. Rich McGlaughlin, soil scientist at NCSU to lead efforts in well water and surface water sampling to determine the extent of the problem. The Avery and Watauga County Extension Offices, led by Avery County Director, Mike Pitman, himself a Christmas tree grower, identified farm wells to sample.

Results of the well sampling was reviewed in an October 19, 1995, article. Of 44 high-risk wells, only one had atrazine levels over the health advisory of 3 parts per billion. This well was poorly constructed and the landowner had had to change the filter every month.

Later that same year, The High Point Enterprise printed an article by staff writer Robert J. Warren called, “O Christmas tree! O Christmas tree! How deadly are your branches? Chemical use on farms raises health questions.” The article included the following:

About 50 million Christmas trees planted in the hillsides of Western North Carolina bring holiday joy to families around the world.

Yet, the farms that grow them may be slowly poisoning mountain folk who live nearby.

“Our study has shown us that in some locations pesticides are reaching the groundwater,” Henry Wade said. Wade works in the pesticide section of the N.C. Department of Agriculture in Raleigh…

But it’s not just the water. Reports of dead birds and dogs after pesticide dusting at some Christmas tree farms have neighbors concerned… “We have reports from neighbors and workers who believe their health has been affected by the Christmas tree farms…We also have a tremendously high rate of still births and childhood cancers in the High Country” (Warren, 1995).

In fact, cancer rates in the mountains are lower than other areas of North Carolina. The problematic pesticides that were cited in the article were simazine, atrazine, and Di-Syston and contained the same research information from McGlaughlin. Further well testing continued in Avery and Watauga counties from funding provided by Ciba-Geigy. In Watauga County, 74 wells were tested with no detectable amounts of triazine. Later on, water samples brought in by homeowners were also screened in Extension offices in Ashe and Alleghany County. Though some samples came back positive for the triazines, the most important contaminant turned out to be lead from old pipes.

As work with low rates of Roundup were further refined by Owen and Hundley, growers began adopting this low-cost alternative to ground cover management. One benefit was that white clover tended to grow in fields where low rates of Roundup were used. This provided added nitrogen. These changes in ground cover management were a major shift for the industry and an important way that North Carolina growers distinguished themselves from production in other areas of the country.

Other Pesticide Issues

In 1996, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) was signed. This Act amended the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) by fundamentally changing the way EPA regulates pesticides. Because of FQPA, the US Environmental Protection Agency was required to review all pesticides and implement stricter safety standards, especially for children. Pesticide tolerances were reevaluated based on cumulative effects of related materials, and one of the first groups to be reevaluated was the organophosphates, including Di-Syston.

EPA was considering cancelling the use of Di-Syston in Christmas trees, especially because the use was only supported by a Special Local Needs label in North Carolina. Di-Syston is a highly toxic material. The federal label called for it to be incorporated in the ground which Christmas tree growers were not able to do. The application of the granules on the surface of the soil was a cause for concern with EPA because of potential effects on small mammals and aquatic life as well as worker safety.

Water Quality Assessments

Some assessments on aquatic life had already been conducted. In 1998, David Lenant with the Division of Water Quality Biological Assessment Unit of the Department of Health and Natural Resources of North Carolina conducted an evaluation of Christmas tree farming and cattle grazing on water quality in the New River basin in Ashe and Alleghany Counties. Seven small streams (mostly 2 meters wide) and four medium-sized streams (5-14 meters wide) were evaluated for benthic macroinvertebrates using 10 composite samples: two kick-net samples, three bank sweeps, two rock or log washes, one sand sample, one leafpack sample, and visual collections from large rocks and logs. The purpose of these collections was to inventory the aquatic fauna and produce an indication of relative abundance. These samples were taken in May 1998 after fertilizers and pesticides had been applied. Some sites were revisited in August 1998 to determine the seasonal variation in macroinvertebrates. The conclusions were that “Christmas tree farming has little negative effect on the fauna of adjacent streams with the use of integrated pest management and adequate stream buffer zones. However, Christmas tree farming often occurs in the same area as cattle grazing, with trees on the higher ground and cattle grazing adjacent to the stream. The effect of cattle grazing on stream quality may be more substantial than any effect of runoff from Christmas tree farming” (Sidebottom, 2003/2008).

To further evaluate pesticide and primarily Di-Syston use on macroinvertebrates, a Cooperative Extension stream sampling project was started. Benthic macroinvertebrate samples were taken from December 1998 through September 1999 in Alleghany, Watauga, Avery, Mitchell and Jackson counties. Streams were monitored below Christmas tree farms of varying sizes and production practices. In each case, samples were compared to those from a reference stream, which was either a similar, near-by stream from undisturbed woods or upstream of the farm. These pair comparisons were made on the same day. Sample dates taken after April would have been after Di-Syston had been applied. Key specimens of mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies were preserved and identified by Steve Fraley with TVA.
Below Christmas trees farms, there was a statistically lower percentage of stoneflies and a higher percentage of riffle beetles as compared to the total population. There were also more total insects below the Christmas tree farms than in the reference creek. These differences did not change over time through the course of the study except at one site where extensive grading occurred. There was no apparent effect of spring pesticide and fertilizer use on macroinvertebrates. The only exception was the Jackson County site where there were no statistically significant differences between the reference stream and the stream below Christmas tree production. This farm had been in continuous Fraser fir production since the late 1950s. Affects on stoneflies and riffle beetles were attributed to sediment from farm roads and bank erosion rather than pesticide use (Sidebottom, 2003/2008).

EPA Di-Syston Tour and Development of Applicator

The EPA called for public comment on the proposed cancellation of disulfoton in various markets. They received more letters of concern from North Carolina Christmas tree growers than from any other commodity group. This prompted them to plan a visit to western North Carolina to learn first hand how growers were using the product and what their alternatives were. Five people from EPA visited from June 25 to 27, 2000, including an entomologist, a biologist, a toxicologist and two risk assessment managers. They visited farms in Mitchell, Avery, Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties to view how trees are grown, how pesticides are applied, how Di-Syston is applied, and what uncontrolled pest damage can look like in a tour largely put together by Jerry Moody, County Extension Agent in Avery County who had replaced Jeff Owen, Jerry Washington, and Jill Sidebottom with help from the NCCTA.

The evening of the 26th, the EPA representatives met with many Christmas tree grower representatives about their use of the product. Possibly the most important comment made was given by Tommy Burleson at that meeting. The 7 ft 2 inch former basketball star who had played for NCSU, the Olympics, and professionally, is also a Christmas tree grower in his home county of Avery. The team from EPA was making several jokes about how no one eats Christmas trees and so they didn’t have to worry about pesticide residuals as you would with food crops. But Burleson stood up and declared, “I eat Christmas trees and I feed them to my family.” The point was clear. Christmas tree production was feeding families, and the impacts on farm families needed to part of EPA’s analysis.

In the end it was decided that impacts of Di-Syston on stream quality were negligible. Impacts on small mammals were far outweighed by the habitat created by Christmas tree farming. The only issue left was worker safety.

Moody worked with a group of nurserymen in Johnston County, NC, who took a stainless steel applicator designed to put granules of insecticide into pots and designed it to apply Di-Syston. The granular Di-Syston that had been sold in bags would then be sold in 2 ½ gallon plastic jugs. Moody, working with Ross Leidy, a retired professor of toxicology from NCSU, received several grants including $65,000 from Bayer, $21,800 from EPA Region IV Strategic Ag Initiative, $14,000 from the Pesticide Environmental Trust Fund with NCDA&CS, $5,000 from NCCTA and $2,800 from county associations to conduct a worker exposure study. On three different days in April 2003, five workers (all county extension agents and specialists) applied Di-Syston with the new applicators for 4 hours. They wore long underwear under their Tyvek suits. Samples were taken from these and from skin wipes to determine the presence of the pesticide. Also, air samples were taken to determine if the chemical was being breathed in. All but two samples came back without any detects, and the two samples were at the very lowest detection limit.

With these data, the use of Di-Syston was allowed with the use of closed system applicators until the company voluntarily stopped production in 2009.

Evaluating Changes in Pesticide Use

In 1995, Dr. Steve Toth, pesticide impact assessment specialist with North Carolina State University, conducted surveys of pesticide use for Christmas trees producers in North Carolina. Growers were surveyed about their pesticide use and pest control practices the previous year. The first survey was for growers in the mountains who produce Fraser fir primarily for wholesale markets. A separate survey was sent to Christmas tree growers east of the mountains that produce several species of pines and cedars for local choose and cut markets. The data he collected was the basis for the two crop profiles on Christmas trees in North Carolina – one for the mountains and the other for the piedmont and coastal plain. According to Toth’s survey, 72% of the Fraser fir acreage was being treated with simazine, only 0.1% with atrazine, and 65% with Di-Syston in 1994. In other words, the two most problematic pesticides, simazine and Di-Syston, were widely used in the early 1990s.

Sidebottom conducted further surveys among Christmas tree growers in 2001 and 2007 of pest management practices the previous year. Many changes were documented by these surveys. The shift away from Simazine was shown by a decline to use on only 18 % of the acreage in 2006. In total, the amount of pesticides used in Christmas trees in the mountains from 2000 to 2006 based on the pounds active ingredient per acre was reduced by almost 50%.

In 2009 the Christmas tree IPM group which now included Hundley, Moody, Frampton, Sidebottom and Owen, as well as Ron Gehl, soil scientist; Kelly Ivors, plant pathologist; Jeff Vance, Mitchell County Extension Director; Bryan Davis, Ashe/Alleghany/Watauga Counties IPM technician; David Isner, Alleghany County Extension Agent; Meghan Baker, Watauga County Extension Agent; and Della Deal, Ashe County Extension Agent were given the Working Together award from the Southern Region IPM Center. This much sought after award demonstrated the tremendous changes made in the Christmas tree industry in western North Carolina through the years.

Issues about Labor

Many labor issues developed regarding Hispanic farm labor over the past twenty years. “In 1004 the Department of Labor raided several of the largest Christmas tree operations in western North Carolina for housing, hiring, and wage violations (Porter 2001)” (Hamilton, 2004, p. 56). Many of the violations seemed petty to growers. For instance, one was fined when his workers used water from a spring his own mother had used for the past thirty years, as well as having a garbage bin where the lid was not present. These issues with housing are regulated by migrant housing standards through the NC Department of Labor. One program, started in 1992 by the Agriculture Safety and Health Bureau of the NC Department of Labor is the Gold Star Growers program. This program recognizes growers who have met and exceeded the required standards. The Hudler Christmas tree farm was featured as a Gold Star recipient in a video provided in 2007.

Another issue that developed in the mid 1990s was how Hispanic seasonal farmworkers are classified when they work in Christmas trees. The discrepancy developed because of differences in federal law. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, Christmas trees are a forest product and not an agricultural one. But according to the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection act, Christmas tree workers are considered agricultural. The difference comes in how these workers are paid. Farmers are not required to give agricultural workers time and a half for overtime, but foresters are. As Christopher Quinn, reporter with the Winston-Salem Journal, aptly called his article, “Christmas-tree growers tangled in a forest of rules.”

Scott Porter, then president of Highland Fraser Firs, testified before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections in Congress about this issue. Porter told of having classified his workers as agricultural only to find out in 1994 about the Fair Labor Standards Act, when he had to pay overtime. The next year, however, he was told by the Department of Labor that overtime was not required, only to have that opinion reversed again in 1996.

This resulted in a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Labor suing the North Carolina Growers Association, Sexton tree Farms and Sexton Associates, Highland Fraser Firs and the New River Tree Co (Anderson, 1995). In the end, it was ruled in favor of the growers, that Christmas tree workers were agricultural, only to be questioned again during the Obama administration.

Renewed conflicts with migrant worker’s access to the United States developed following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Many of the workers in the Christmas tree industry and other areas had initially entered the US illegally. Some Christmas tree growers were trying to get workers legally through programs such as the H2-A Guestworker program, which had been started in the early 1960s to replace a troubled “Bracero” Program (Hamilton, 2004). “The term ‘H-2A’ refers to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 101(a)(15)(H)(ii)(a), which authorized agricultural employers to legally hire nonimmigrant alien workers for seasonal jobs” (Hamilton, 2004, p. 53). This program as well as issues with illegal immigrants began to be questioned during the George W. Bush administration. Past NCCTA president Pat Gaskin worked tirelessly to keep the membership updated with these and other legislative issues. She became a member of the NC Green Industry Council to help with lobbying efforts in Washington.

As Gaskin wrote in 2001,

First, Christmas tree production has rarely stood on its own with regards to laws, rules, and regulations as it has been classified under forestry (industrial), horticulture or agricultural. Second is the fact that the way Christmas trees are produced has changed. Over roughly forty years, production has gone from cutting Christmas trees from the forest to farming trees on farmland using accepted farming practices (Gaskin, 2001, pp. 14-15).

The industry was criticized for its use of Hispanic farmworkers from many fronts including exposure to pesticides, low wages, and long work days, but seldom were the mutual benefits to both groups discussed, until Jim Hamilton published his PhD thesis, “The Dynamics of Labor in North Carolina’s Christmas Tree Industry” in 2004. Hamilton developed his thesis from interviews with both farmworkers, crew leaders, and Christmas tree growers. His research demonstrated the relationship between workers and growers was frequently mutually beneficial. As County Extension Agent in Watauga County, Hamilton also helped develop programs for farmworkers in Spanish on worker and pesticide safety, and pest identification and integrated pest management. One of the few newspaper articles to also describe the mutual benefits to workers as well as farms was written by Bertrand Gutierrez, as he described the work relationship between Christmas tree grower Harry Yates and his Hispanic foreman, Santos Padilla-Chavez ,who had “put his daughter through college in Mexico as a seasonal employee of Yates” (Gutierrez, 2006).

What the Fraser Fir Has Really Meant to Western North Carolina: A Final Word

Perhaps one of the best articles to sum up what Fraser fir has meant to western North Carolina was written for the Avery Mountain Times in 1998 by Miles Tagner about one of the first families of Fraser fir, the Johnsons. The article had a photo of Pam Johnson, son Kelly and father Bartlett Farmer called “Three generations on the family farm.”

It’s the day after Halloween, and as much a landmark on the calendar in Avery County as the national holiday itself.

On November 1, the Christmas trees start to roll out of the county on their way around the world.

You know it for sure along Spanish Oak and Squirrel Creek between Newland and Crossnore, a hub of the farming industry which has transformed Avery County on the ground, in the pocketbook and in another critical way as well.

For the Johnson family of Crossnore, the operative word is family.

Pam Johnson is taking an order out of the trailer in the lot across from fields of trees, tagged and ready for harvesting.

Her father Bartlett Farmer, a long-time grower who supplied a tree for the White House in the 1970’s, still lends counsel to the operation, offering years of wisdom and experience.

And perhaps most important of all, Johnson’s three sons are also preparing for the culmination of another busy season, two full-time working in the business; a third at N.C. State readying for his role in what is becoming a family tradition.

There are not many enterprises that can make a family business a successful tradition in Avery County, Johnson said; “you don’t see it happen that way very often…”

Johnson can’t say what Kelly, 20, Kevin, 22, or Kermit Jr., 23, would be doing in Avery County, or if they would still be in Avery County, without the trees…

In those early days of the industry, no one could foresee the saving grace Fraser firs would bring the declining, dying in fact, small farm in the county, when corporations pulled out and growing row crops, barely profitable to begin with, became a total loss…

Much of the suitable remaining land in the county is going for the instant gratification of resort development, which the seven year cycle of Christmas trees is hard-pressed to compete with.

The pressures can make a family give up the task, or circle the wagons, using technology and marketing expertise to maximize existing holdings.

Johnson can at least look to a third generation that is up to the task, and to perhaps leaving the rural and fertile legacy of the land for the ones to come.

Christmas tree production in North Carolina is a family affair – real trees for real families grown by real families. Jack W. Wiseman seconded this feeling. Christmas tree farming “has allowed me to make a living in Avery County doing something outside on the family farm. It has allowed us to hold onto our original farms and purchase new land that would likely be developed now” (Rogers, 1995, p. 18).

Written By

Photo of Dr. Jill SidebottomDr. Jill SidebottomExtension Specialist (Mountain Conifer IPM) (828) 684-3562 jill_sidebottom@ncsu.eduForestry & Environmental Resources - NC State University
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