Tales from a Texas Christmas Tree Farm
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by Darrell Bain
Description: When a couple in their forties move to the country and start a Christmas tree farm, with no idea at all of what they are getting into, you have all the makings of some hilarious stories. From start to the present day, read about everything you never knew about Christmas trees and how they're grown and marketed. Darrell and Betty did things two ways: the wrong way first, of course, which is what makes the book funny, from selling trees with aphids in them to hired hands who shaved trees to the bone to lost pets and endearing lost children, to grandmas trying to keep track of kids to wily customers trying to pull a fast one, all of them out searching for that "perfect tree". Prequel to Life on Santa Claus Lane.
eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books,
eBookwise Release Date: March 2009
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [110 KB]
Reading time: 65-91 min.
CHAPTER ONE So Much Money; So Little Work
My wife, Betty, and I both happened to read the same article in our newspaper, extolling the virtues of growing Christmas trees in Texas. We had just built a new home on a hundred acres about fifty miles north of Houston and the article caught our attention like a freshly hooked tuna. We were running a few cattle at the time, but we had already discovered the real meaning of the song Home On The Range: It meant that you could never go anywhere because as soon as you did, your cows were certain to get loose and eat the neighbor's garden or play tag with pickups on the county road, a no-good way to raise cattle. There were a lot more trucks in our neighborhood than we had cows. * * * *
Whoever wrote that article should be ashamed of themselves. They made it sound as if growing Christmas trees was right up there with mattress testing as a sure-fire, lazy way to make a bunch of money. It's a cinch the author never tried it, because it sounded so simple and easy that neither of us even bothered to do any research on the subject. We simply ordered a few thousand seedlings and plunged in, visions of sugar plums stuffed with money dancing in our heads. * * * *
In retrospect, I think there are two simple requirements for starting a Christmas tree farm: the first is a convenient hardware store (preferably one which gives easy credit) and the other is a money-making machine. The first we located, but we never have discovered where the other one lives. We suspect it resides in the bowels of the local bank though, because it always seems to have plenty of money to loan us. * * * *
The majority of Choose and Cut Christmas tree farms in Texas (and in other states, too) are family owned and operated. In most cases one or both members have full-time jobs away from home and work the farms on weekends. They also go to the farm on holidays and what would normally be vacation days, sick time and even funeral leave--there's no sense in having to bury your trees along with the dear departed for lack of attention. In fact, when a new baby arrives, it isn't out of the realm of possibility that the new mother will call grandma in to babysit and change diapers while she gets out of bed and tends to Christmas trees instead of the new offspring.
Speaking of offspring: if you ever decide to get into Christmas tree farming, it would be a good idea to plant some husky young sons and daughters at the same time you plant your seedlings. There is a never-ending demand for labor on a Christmas tree farm and sometimes you can dragoon your kids into working for free. Don't count on it, though. Just about the time they reach the age when they could be of some real help, it's more likely that they will turn their attention toward the opposite sex rather than acres of Christmas trees. Hormones have a habit of rearing their ugly heads shortly after puberty and so far, the genetic engineers haven't developed a tree with properly receptive pheromones which might keep the kids on the farm. They would much rather occupy themselves with removing bits of each others' clothing instead of taking off unneeded limbs and branches on the trees, or checking out attractive members of the opposite gender rather than staking up young seedlings.
Right away, you might suspect that there is more to growing Christmas trees than you would first imagine--and you would be overwhelmingly right. The thing is, when the first little seedlings are planted in the ground they look so innocuous and innocent that you start thinking what a snap growing Christmas trees is going to be, hardly more trouble than tending to a bed of pansies or a row of home-grown tomatoes. Unfortunately, little trees grow up to be big trees and the work required to tend to them increases in geometrical progression. It's sort of like a new bride thinking two cups of dry rice equals two servings after cooking when it actually expands to a volume sufficient to feed the South Korean Army.
As the saying goes in the industry, "Never plant more trees than your wife can take care of." Or from the female perspective, it's far better to take an outside job and tend house on the side than try to help with all the farm chores that your husband never seems to get around to. That is, unless you want to develop muscles like Hercules, sun-wrinkled skin tougher than an old leather boot and hands bearing a distinct resemblance to the "before" pictures advertising miraculous arthritis cures.
There is another downside, too: after you've been in the business a few years you will wake up one day and discover that your only friends are other Christmas tree farmers because that's all you ever talk about. It is somewhat akin to having a neighbor or relative who can't let a day go by without boring you with a rendition of every burp and da-da their child has ever uttered, then add insult to injury by hypnotizing you into glassy-eyed stupefaction by insisting that you see every video, home movie and Polaroid photograph they have taken over the last half century. Before long, you will begin to notice that the house on each side of you has a "For Sale" sign on it, invitations to social gatherings have become rarer than the black footed ferret and the answering machines of even nodding acquaintances are equipped with caller ID so they can screen out your calls.
Is there a positive benefit to becoming a Christmas tree farmer? Sure. Christmas tree farmers belong to the only branch of humanity who do all their Christmas shopping in October and pay their Christmas shopping bills in December. There's no time to shop after Thanksgiving and Christmas is the only time of the year they have any money. We pay off our bank notes, credit cards and our suppliers at the end of December, thereby throwing their computers into a panic. They just aren't programmed to receive consumer debt payments at that time of year, probably causing no end of service calls when the computer monitors begin flashing error messages.
Another benefit is not having to ever travel anywhere at Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is traditionally the day before the start of the selling season and Christmas tree farmers are scrambling to get their trees tagged, their cash registers programmed and extra help lined up to handle the load. It wouldn't make any difference if you could travel, though: by the time you reach the stage where you have trees to sell, you probably aren't welcome anywhere except at another Christmas tree farm and they would really prefer that you stay home; they have work to do! * * * *
Christmas tree farming is a strange profession. You only get one payday per year (after all, who wants a Christmas tree in March or July?) and sometimes you don't get one even then. The majority of customers come out on Saturdays and Sundays, the weekend after Thanksgiving and the first two weeks in December. Unfortunately, they won't show up if it is raining. One stormy weekend and you break even for the year; two and the computers can rest easy--you're not going to be paying off many bills that year. Three rainy weekends and you're dead meat, causing your friendly banker to begin rubbing his paws together at the thought of all the interest he's going to collect for financing next year's operations.
Besides becoming a schizophrenic/paranoid at the thought of rain in December, there's the rest of the year to worry about. It is always either too hot or too cold to work; too wet or too dry for the trees to grow; too windy to spray or too muddy to get a tractor into the fields and on the rare periods when the weather decides to cooperate, the boss picks that weekend for you to work overtime or little Matilda's asthma acts up and you spend all day at the emergency room telling the kid to hurry up and get well so you can get back to the farm. If none of these things happen, your truck is sure to break down and you can't go to the farm anyway. * * * *
Most people think Christmas tree farmers must be rolling in money. Sometimes they are, in December, if it hasn't rained or the bugs haven't eaten your trees or a drought or freeze hasn't killed them and your help has showed up and your equipment has worked right and someone hasn't set up a retail lot right down the road where they are selling cut trees at half what you have to charge to break even, much less make a profit. However, those folks who think you're getting rich never stop to consider that all that money is the only cash you see for a whole year. Once when we were picking up our annual seedling order, just about the time several of the farms in the county had finally gotten far enough along to begin selling trees, one of our grower friends broke into a conversation with a leading question. He said, "Anyone here who thinks they made more than a dollar an hour last year, raise your hand." An abrupt silence ensued, along with a shuffling of feet and downcast eyes. Not a hand was raised!