For Don Tucker, the enduring magic of Christmas saved his North Carolina family farm.
As Tucker faced dropping cattle prices, he turned to a new crop to generate more income: growing Christmas trees.
More than 40 years after planting his first seedlings, Tucker's Tree Farm in Laurel Springs, N.C., harvests more than 10,000 trees per year. Indeed, a vibrant Christmas spirit creates the sale of 25-30 million U.S. trees every year.
Tucker is among about 650 Christmas tree growers in rural Ashe County who collectively harvest more than 2 million Christmas trees annually, resulting in $50 million in annual production. That makes North Carolina second only to Oregon as a leading producer of Christmas trees in the United States.
At the time Tucker started growing trees, the county was a leading cattle producer. A county forester convinced Tucker that setting trees could be more profitable than fattening cattle. "I was trying to do everything I could to make a living and raise a family without leaving the mountains," Tucker recalls.
Today, Tucker, with two of his four adult children, grows more than 100,000 trees on about 100 acres of the 450-acre farm.
Most trees take about 12 years to reach the ideal Christmas tree height of 6-7 feet, he says. But before a tree can be cut and shipped, it must be sheared (shaped), fertilized, and sprayed annually.
- For every tree harvested, up to three seedlings are planted in its place the following spring.
- About 21,000 Christmas tree farmers grow their crop on 500,000 U.S. acres.
- The top selling Christmas Trees are: balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine, and white pine.
Source: US DA National Agricultural Statistics Service and The National Christmas Tree Association.
Tucker contracts with other professionals, but he also relies on his own family of experts.
Son David Tucker, a local district conservationist, and daughter Della Riley, an agriculture extension agent, are slowly taking over management of the farm, parts of which have been in the Tucker family for more than 100 years.
"We all try to pitch in as much as possible, but Dad really does the most work," Riley says. "During harvest (the week before Thanksgiving) it takes everyone working early morning until after dark to get all of the trees out."
And even though the trees are now sold wholesale in large lots, the Tuckers still cater to a small group of locals who have visited the farm for decades, since the days of a small choose-and-cut operation in the Tuckers' front yard.
Whether wholesale or retail, though, the Tuckers say they plan to keep the Christmas magic alive for the next generation.
"My brother and I will always be Christmas tree growers," Riley says. "I hope that my twin boys will also decide to keep the family farm growing."
Amber Stephens is a freelance writer and editor from Amanda, Ohio.