Miller says growing trees is more complicated than what many think
Terry Miller has been working with Christmas trees so long that he can’t smell them anymore.
Yet, the aroma of fresh cut Fraser firs is the first thing many will note upon walking into the red and white, candy-striped tent Miller has set up on a lot at the Westbrooke Shopping Center in Havelock.
Miller arrived last week with 500 trees grown at the Shady Rest Tree Farm in Glendale Springs right off the Blue Ridge Parkway in rural Ashe County in Western North Carolina.
“I enjoy the people of Havelock,” said Miller. “I have had a really good experience getting to know the people and they are all really appreciative that I keep coming back. A lot of people like my accent. I like people’s accent down here. The other day, a guy from down in Atlantic came by and he had an accent like none other.”
It is seventh year coming to Havelock.
“That being said, a lot of the kids that were coming to get trees with their families back then if they were 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, they are showing up now with their girlfriends and a few of them with their wives, so you sort of get to see these families grow up into adulthood and the changes that take place as they do,” said Miller. “I’ve got families that get a smaller tree now, where they used to get a bigger one because their kids have moved out of the house now. Life changes constantly for everybody.”
The trees are priced about $10 a foot, and a mid-range one will run about $70 or so.
“The Fraser fir is the most sought after Christmas tree there is,” said Miller. “They hold their needles good. They hold up real well. They are easy to decorate. They have got strong branches. The Fraser fir is definitely the Cadillac of the Christmas tree industry.”
Christmas trees are big business in North Carolina. According to the N.C. Christmas Tree Association, the state ranks second only to Oregon in the number of trees harvested and in cash receipts for trees.
In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, North Carolina’s leading Christmas tree-producing counties were Ashe, with 1.98 million trees, followed by Alleghany, Avery, Jackson and Watauga, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Growing Christmas trees on the hillsides of Western North Carolina is a job, Miller said.
“One of the most unappreciated things is that these trees are old. It takes a lot of time to grow them,” said Miller. “Another thing that people don’t realize is the effort that it takes a lot of time to grow these trees. It’s a whole lot of work. Like a 10-foot Christmas tree, from a tree until it is ready for harvest, it can be around 14 years old. A lot of people think that you can grow a Christmas tree in three or four years, but that is just simply not the case at all.”
Throughout the year, the trees have to be constantly trimmed, fertilized, sprayed for insects that could kill them, and constantly maintained.
“You have to love what you are doing to do it. You have got to be the guy that has got the green thumb for doing it and absolutely loves farming,” said Miller.
Even though the Millers have about 30,000 trees, that’s not a lot compared to many larger farms, he said.
“A lot of your Food Lion trees and Wal-Mart trees and Lowe’s, in order to get them out to all these stores, they cut them in the month of October, early in October and start stockpiling them in order to get them to market in time,” said Miller. “The quality suffers because the trees are dry.”
Miller said his trees were cut three days before he hauled them to Havelock on Saturday.
“As fresh as our trees are, we cut ‘em, bale ‘em, load ‘em and bring ‘em. That’s the benefit of a small farm over big,” he said. “The big farms cut ‘em early and stock pile ‘em. We cut ‘em as we need ‘em because we can’t really afford to waste ‘em.
“I kept a tree like this up through February last year just to see how it done and it was as green when I took it out of the house in February as it was when I put it in. It’s amazing.”
To Miller, there is not a “perfect” Christmas tree. It is a matter of individual taste.
“That is really up in the air. I’ll tell you why. I see what I would call the perfect tree and they’ll go to what I would call the ugliest tree in the tent. They go straight to it and act like it’s the nicest tree they have ever seen. It is simply all in the eye of the beholder,” said Miller. “For me I like a tree that is tall and narrow or tall and skinny, and I prefer the tree to be not that full. I like them to be sort of barren. A lot of people are looking for the fattest tree in here and the fullest. Other than that, it is simply just way up in the air about preference, you know what I mean.”
One thing is for sure. Every tree will want and need to be watered twice a day for the first few days once it gets home, especially considering the drought that has impacted Western North Carolina. And Miller is sure that just plain water is best, water with no additives like sugar or fertilizer.
“You can’t beat straight rain water, if you have a way to collect it, because that is what a tree has grew up on,” said Miller. “The rain water, if you could get it, would be the ultimate water to give it. You don’t want your water bowls to go dry any longer than you have to because they can sap up on the bottom and quick drinking water. Initially, they will drink water pretty heavy because, believe it or not, they are still, per say, alive and they are trying to live at this point, therefor when they get a taste of water they are going to want it.”
Sun Journal city editor Sandy Wall contributed to this report.