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One Month at a Time: Visiting West Virginia festive farms growing, selling Christmas trees

By BILL LYNCH

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —Having a Christmas tree has always been important to me.

This month, while I’ve been looking into different parts of Christmas around Charleston, I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmas trees and deciding whether I’m getting one this season.

As part of his month looking at Christmas locally, reporter Bill Lynch learned a little about live Christmas trees. He’s also deciding whether he wants to get a tree this year.
(Gazette-Mail photo by Craig Hudson)

It’s been hard to find the time to even go look, and buying a temporary seasonal decoration becomes a harder and harder sell the closer to Christmas Day we get.

Still, as far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a Christmas tree.

Not all of these trees were spectacular, but I remember most of them.

One year, my father brought in a short, spindly white pine we parked on top of an old wooden box to give it some height.

The thing rained long, green needles until the day after Christmas, when we tossed it out.

I always suspected that tree had come from the national forest and not an officially sanctioned Christmas tree distributor, but I’ve never asked.

Still, I remember that tree — loved it. It reminded me of the one in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

I think everybody gets one of those trees at some point.

My mother, a true Christmas fan, preferred artificial trees and used to decorate two every year, but I’ve never cared for them. To me, plastic is to pine as “nog-flavored” nondairy holiday beverage is to classic eggnog made with eggs, cream and more than a little bourbon.

Plastic trees have their advantages — like if you’re allergic to tree pollen. Also, with a fake tree, you never have to worry that the dog will drink the tree’s water, and most cats won’t try to scale a thin aluminum pole supporting a nest of lush, green coat hangers.

At least, they won’t try more than once.

Artificial trees are convenient, too. Once the season is over, you don’t have to wonder if the sad, discarded remnant of a happy holiday will sit by the curb until summer if it doesn’t go out for pick up at the precise day appointed by the city, the county or Santa Claus.

Convenience and easy cleanup aside, I still prefer real trees and went to talk to a few people about running Christmas tree farms and selling the most seasonal of seasonal items.

Keep overhead low

Shawn Clyburn’s family has been coming to Charleston for 26 years to sell trees on the far end of the Piggly Wiggly parking lot in Kanawha City.

“Dad used to work with a guy from around here who told him that Charleston would be good,” Shawn explained. “So, Dad and Mom came up to Charleston, looked around and then made a deal with the owners of the store.”

Every year at Thanksgiving, Shawn drives from Grayson County, Virginia, parks an RV and hunkers down for a long month of living in a parking lot.

“We get started around 8 in the morning and go until about 10 at night,” he said.

His family uses some local help, but not too much.

“You have to keep the overhead low,” he said.

When they’re not selling trees, he said they’re making Christmas wreaths from trimmed branches or straightening up their space.

The bulk of Shawn’s trees come from his family’s 20-acre farm in Virginia, though they sometimes supplement with trees from other Christmas tree producers.

“But it’s mostly our trees,” he said.

Tree prices, he acknowledged, have gone up, but described it as more of a market correction than bad growing seasons.

In the late 1990s, a lot of people planted trees as a way to make a buck on the side, he said. Not everyone knew what they were getting into.

“They planted seedlings, grew their trees, but they didn’t have anywhere to sell them,” he said.

So they sold their trees cheap to bigger, more established farms, which was both good and bad.

“There were a lot more trees, but the quality wasn’t great,” he said.

The trees flooded the Christmas tree market. Penny-pinching customers would take shaggy, inexpensive trees just as often as they’d take a nicer one. So the prices for most trees were forced down.

“Now, most of the people who got into the market because they thought it was easy money got out,” Shawn said. “There are fewer trees, which raises the price some, but they’re just better trees.”

Shawn said he starts with 300 trees and then has 75 to 100 trees delivered to the lot every week through the season. None of them are coming home with him.

“At the end, I all but give away the last couple to people in the neighborhood,” Shawn said.

The end always comes a couple of days before Christmas. This year, he said, he expects to finish around Wednesday, which he’s already looking forward to.

“I’m going to take a couple of weeks and rest,” he said, wearily.

A special experience

If you want to cut out the middleman, avoid the tree lot or the market, you can cut your own tree at a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm — well, sort of.

Actually, it’s getting harder.

On a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon, Kanawha County’s only cut-your-own Christmas tree farm, Whipkey Farm, was booming. Cars and trucks had to squeeze around each other to get up Bob Whipkey’s long and narrow driveway that snaked up a steep hill.

Navigation was tricky, but nobody seemed to mind.

Everybody was in a good mood.

For some, it was their first time to the farm.

Tammy Webber and her husband were out with their granddaughter, Kennedi, who was in charge of picking their Christmas tree — within reason.

“We wanted to share a special experience with her,” Tammy said.

Katie Kessler and Ethan Ballard were return visitors, and Katie said cutting a tree was something her family did when she was growing up.

“It’s just a really fun Christmas thing,” Katie said. “Ethan and I started coming here last year.”

And with the hill, dragging the tree up to the shed to be shaken and netted for transport was a decent workout.

That afternoon, kids with parents or grandparents in tow scoured the farm’s 4 acres of trees looking for just the right one. Not everybody found what they were looking for, but most did, and they kept Bob and his assistant busy.

Occasionally, Bob had to make change for someone, but, mostly, he preferred to have people just place the money in a specially designated mailbox.

“It’s the honor system,” the 71-year-old said.

So far, that’s worked out fine. In fact, better than fine, he said.

“I’ve had a couple of times when someone paid $40 for the tree instead of $35.”

“Most people are honest,” he said. “And it’s Christmas.”

Business was going so well, Bob wasn’t sure if he’d be open the next weekend. Trees were selling this year. Already, the Christmas tree farm in Lincoln County had closed for the year.

A retired forester for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, Bob got into the cut-your-own Christmas tree business in 1991, after he planted his first seedlings.

The tree farm was a way to make use of the 4 acres of so-so soil.

“The white pine likes dry, acidic soil,” he said.

The other kinds of trees favored for Christmas don’t need much more.

“Just spray a little bit of fertilizer,” Bob said.

But it’s not a get-rich-overnight kind of business. It took years for the trees to grow. He sold his first crop in 1997.

Most Christmas tree farms in the region, Bob said, don’t worry much about watering. Local rainfall takes care of that, though he set up a way to draw water from a pond during particularly dry years.

Labor intensive

Managing his trees can get labor intensive, he said.

In late June and early July, the trees have to be pruned properly for that preferred conical shape and to encourage growth of small branch clusters, which are better to hang ornaments from.

There is also a certain amount of mowing and care that comes with managing the farm, but the money isn’t bad for the effort.

Bob declined to tell me how many trees he sold each year, just that the goal was always 500, and he never got there.

“I never got rich,” he said. “But it sure helped send two kids to college.”

Running a cut-your-own tree farm had certain benefits over selling his trees to a merchant, he said. He could keep the price relatively low.

Bob charges $35 for any Christmas tree on his property, which is either a few bucks cheaper or a lot cheaper than other places, depending on the size of the tree. He also doesn’t have to worry about charging sales tax because he’s selling an agricultural product.

“It’s one less hassle,” he said.

For a minute, I wondered if I could put in a small tree farm up on my property and turn a buck. But with only about half an acre to work with, at market prices, it wouldn’t be sending any of my kids to college.

In a good year, I could maybe send my dog to obedience school.

Bob told me there aren’t as many Christmas tree farms in West Virginia as there used to be, which he found baffling.

“The demand is there, but you practically have to beg people to get interested,” he said.

Bob said there used to be about 150 growers. Now, there are less than a hundred. Many of those growers have simply aged out of the business.

“And the kids aren’t picking it up,” he said.

Whipkey Farm won’t be around for much longer, either. Even if he wanted to keep up his farm, Bob said it was time for him to focus on the latter part of his life.

Five years ago, he developed lymphoma. The illness and the treatment took a lot out of him. He didn’t replant his stock. So, each year, he has fewer trees. Eventually, his stock of trees will be gone, and that’s fine by him.

“I’ll take a look at what I’ve got left in the summer,” he said. “I might have one or two more years left, but not much more than that.”

Reach Bill Lynch at [email protected], 304-348-5195 or follow @lostHwys on Twitter. He’s also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap, and read his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/onemonth.

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