NC State Extension

Chapter 7: The 1980s

Growing and selling Christmas trees is a unique business and most of the Christmas Tree folks I am acquainted with are really unique people. (Rogers, 1985, p.4).

The 1980s saw many changes to western North Carolina, the NCCTA and the business of growing Christmas trees. Sadly, one of those changes was the death of Ken Perry who died of a massive heart attack in his home on October 10, 1981. Perry, along with Waightstill Avery, had shouldered much of the responsibility for farm-based research during the 1970s. Even after I started working in November 1988, people were still talking about his contributions to the industry, regretful at his untimely passing.

Issues with Fraser Fir Seed Supply and Balsam Woolly Adelgid Continue into the 1980s

On February 13, 1980, UNC Educational Television presented a documentary called: “Fraser Fir, a Southern Appalachian Phoenix.” The purpose of the documentary was to increase public awareness of the issues with balsam woolly adelgid in the natural stands and to generate money for research. Mike Gray with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, produced the program and interviewed Jim McGraw and Bill Huxster. Johnny Hensley, County Extension Agent in Yancey County, was also on the program. Jack Wiseman was the Christmas tree grower representative. Hugh Morton with Grandfather Mountain was also featured.

McGraw sent a January 22 memo to Agricultural Extension Agents to let them know the show would be airing. In it he had this critical note:

During any conversations, new releases, radio or TV interviews, DO NOT use the words “Threatened”, “Rare”, or “Endangered.” These are legal terms which must not be associated with Fraser fir. Rare and endangered species are not generally acceptable for commercial use, particularly interstate commerce. Get the message! (McGraw, 1980, January 22).

Unfortunately, there was little public funding generated to increase research on the adelgid problem, or to help save remaining trees in the natural stands. McGraw always viewed these attempts as a failure, but it did raise awareness of the problem with the adelgid and concerns about the availability of seed among extension agents and growers.

The plight of the Fraser fir and the natural stands continued to draw media attention throughout the 1980s. Much of the attention, however, was turning away from the adelgid to acid rain. “‘For some reason, factors have come together, right now in the 1980s, in which spruce-fire ecosystem is falling apart in a very short period of time,’ said Robert Bruck, North Carolina State University scientist who has studied the effects of air pollution on forests for 12 years. ‘Is this natural? Is it unnatural? Or is it a combination of natural and un-natural factors?’” (Harmon, 1987). The debate continues to this day, though thankfully, young Fraser fir continue to grow and thrive in all the natural stands. It is only older trees that are killed by the adelgid.

Worries about a source for Fraser fir seed carried into the early 1980s. On September 16, 1980, a cooperative agreement was reached between TVA and Ponderosa Tree Farm in Buncombe County for a Fraser fir seed orchard (Ponderosa Tree Farm, 1980). According to the enclosed summary, the Ponderosa Tree Farm had 10 acres of Fraser fir planted in 1952 and 1953. The land was sold, and the current owner, Ben Nesbitt, had intended to sell the trees for Christmas trees and never had. The trees were “let go.” In the fall of 1979 when the County Extension Agent in Buncombe County, Bobby Peek, was invited to the farm to help determine what to do with the trees, he suggested they be managed for seed. The following spring, Peek and Huxster observed both male flowers and cones on the trees, demonstrating that the trees were indeed old enough to produce seed, hence the agreement with TVA to help fund upkeep in exchange for seed. Part of the agreement was for the TVA to purchase a high-pressure sprayer to treat trees for the adelgid.

In 1981, Huxster and Jim Shelton wrote an informational note called, “Management of Small Fraser Fir Line Out or Transplant Beds,” to help growers with seedling production. This was the second “Christmas Tree Note” developed in Extension Forest Resources, a series which continues to this day.

More growers were starting their own seed orchards. For instance on the front cover of the June 1982 Limbs & Needles is a picture of a new seed orchard that Bruner and Linda Sides were establishing.

In 1981 a good seed crop finally came through. The news even made it in The Raleigh Times half-way across the state. “The 1981 growing season may have been the solution to a problem which has hounded Western North Carolina Christmas tree growers for the last several years – a shortage of Fraser fir seed” (‘81 harvest ends shortage of Christmas tree seed, 1981). The article included a quote from Gerald Tysinger, supervisor of the Crossnore nursery. “I never saw such a crop of cones as was on Roan Mountain and Mount Mitchell. The firs were loaded down.” The article went on to report, “A dearth of seed and seedlings has been a stumbling block to the growth of the Christmas tree industry in the region which produces some of the finest trees to be found in America …The seedlings will be sold to farmers for transplanting this winter at $125 a thousand, according to Marty Shaw, district N.C. Forest Service ranger.”

The role that the availability of seed would have on Christmas tree expansion was discussed by E. C. “Zeke” Tatum in the “President’s Column” in the June 1982 issue of Limbs & Needles.

Tree nursery sales indicate that record numbers of Christmas Trees are being planted again this year. Good demand and prices for 1981 trees and dim prospects for other agricultural products contribute to the increase in Christmas Tree Plantings.

Most of the experienced growers are expanding their operation, and many new growers are planting trees for the first time. This expansion is in most states and especially in the south (Tatum, 1982).

However much seedling availability was an issue, many with the NCCTA wanted seedling production to be in private rather than the hands of the State. At the October 12, 1981, Director’s meeting in Raleigh, “A motion was made by Sid Kirkpatrick, that we request the State nursery to not plant any firs during Spring of 1982. The motion was seconded by Hal Johnson, with a request to get discussion on the floor. Comments were requested and given by all present. No decision was made on this request” (Wagoner, 1981, October 12). But on September 24, 1982, at the NCCTA director’s meeting the following was passed:

A motion was passed by the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association that the State Forest Service implement an orderly plan to phase out of the Fraser Fir seedling production within 5 or 6 years providing private enterprise will start sufficient production to cover seedling needs of all North Carolina Christmas tree growers (Wagoner, 1982, October 14).

Tom Rhyne, Section Chief of Field Projects for the NC Forest Service spoke at the Directors Meeting on October 14, 1982, and stated, “the Forestry Council had met in Crossnore, and devoted time to Christmas trees, along with hardwood discussions. He stated that they decided to continue Fraser fir seedling production at 3 to 3.5 million, and to increase interest in seed production area at Crossnore, with emphasis to strive to work with the US Forest Service to promoting seed production and protecting US Forest Service land” (Wagoner, 1982, October 14).

Competition between the NC Forest Service and private nurseries had been an issue before. In fact, the Beutells had taken the State to court over the issue prior to the Linville River Nursery opening in Crossnore (Beutell, 2007). The NC Forest Service nurseries were not supposed to compete with free trade. The State maintained that there was not sufficient private enterprise to provide the needs of Christmas tree growers. And in fact, the NC Forest Service provided valuable support to the industry through the state-maintained seed orchards and the tree improvement program which private industry could not have provided. Still the issues would persist for many years.

A meeting was held by Rhyne on March 15, 1983, at Biltmore Hall on the NCSU campus to discuss the “protection of natural seed sources and development of seed production areas” which would include field-testing of tree improvement (Rhyne, 1983). Speakers at the meeting besides Rhyne and Huxster included K. O. Summerville, Don Kass and H. Grady Harris with the Division of Forest Resources, Tree Improvement; J. B. Jett with NCSU; Pat Barry, Entomologist with the US Forest Service; Eric Hinesley; Bob Wilson with the National Forests in North Carolina; and Waightstill Avery, then President of the NCCTA.

On March 14, 1988, Huxster and Harris sent out a survey to the County Extension Chairmen and County Forest Rangers in Fraser fir counties to determine the number of Fraser fir seed sown and seed bed production. The reason for the survey was the overproduction of Fraser fir seedlings by the NC Forest Service. “For the first time in history, in 1987-1988 sales of 3-0 Fraser fir seedlings from the Division of Forest Resources Nursery Program have totaled less than 1,000,000. A major cause of this significant reduction in sales is the wide availability of seedlings from private growers.” Or as Huxster stated rather tongue-in-cheek in his March 24 memorandum, “Information from several counties and sources indicates there is a large surplus of 3-0 Fraser fir seedlings for sale this year. Congratulations – it has taken our growers, nurserymen, Extension, the State and Federal Forest Services over seventeen years to finally meet the demand for plants.”

Huxster’s March 24 memo continued:

Our most recent survey conducted in 1984 indicated 3-0 seedling, 3-2 transplant and 3-2-2 field production was a relatively smooth trend of increasing production and stabilizing at the 6-7 million level of 3-2-2 field production. We found the 9-10 million seedling level was needed to yield the annual production levels of 6 million grade one trees surviving two years in the field and a harvestable production in 1993-94 of approximately 5-6 million.

The Forest Service developed a plan for Fraser fir seedling production dated February 15, 1988. The following was in that memorandum.

Since the mid 1950s the Division of Forest Resources has produced Fraser fir seedlings and/or transplants for the growing Christmas tree industry in western North Carolina. Transplants (2-3 or 3-2) were produced until fiscal year 1981-82; since that time production has been limited to seedlings (3-0 or 4-0)…

After the decision was made to limit production to 3-0 seedlings, and with the advice of the Forestry Council, Fraser fir seedling production and sales were limited to 4,000,000 annually, thus avoiding competition with private producers and providing an adequate seedling supply.

Christmas Trees Are Making Money

Christmas tree production had become a major agricultural commodity in North Carolina by the 1980s.

In 1980, the Christmas tree industry in North Carolina had expanded to the point that growers harvested 1.5 million trees, or 5% of the annual national supply of about 35 million trees (Maddney, 1980). Wholesale prices were reported to be up 8% to 10% over the previous year. Growers in early December estimated that statewide, the crop would gross $13.8 million, and that 60% of the crop would be Fraser fir…Statewide, 2,000 individuals had trees under cultivation in 1980. While many of these people were not yet to the stage of harvesting their first crop, their projected, collective harvest represented about 15% of the current national demand for trees (Stevens, 1987, p. 68-69).

Of the 2,000 growers in NC in 1982, only 50 were considered fulltime (Fullwood, 1982; Stevens, 1987, p. 69). The crop that year was worth $23 million. “This figure represented the second consecutive year that Christmas tree revenue equaled about half that of western North Carolina’s agricultural standby, the burley tobacco industry (Osborne, 1981; Stevens, 1987, p. 70). The following year, 2.5 million Christmas trees or 6% of the national demand were grown. “Fraser firs wholesaled for up to $25 per tree and retailers received as much as $50 per tree that year” (Stevens, 1987, p. 71).

Limbs & Needles article about the Beutells shed some light on pricing during the early 1980s. “Fraser firs now sell at wholesale for about $11 a tree and at retail for about $30 to $35. It costs Beutell about $5 to grow a tree, so the profit isn’t bad. The state’s 2,000 commercial growers will cut 1.9 million trees this year for a wholesale gross of $21 million” (Mills, 1982, p. 14).

By 1984, North Carolina was “the nations’ ninth-largest Christmas tree producer, behind Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New York and California,” according to Donald McNeil, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association (Fletman, 1984). That year NC harvested 3 million trees valued at $35.5 million.

The following table, generated by Stevens (1987, p. 37) from Avery County data worksheets of cash farm income, provides the percentage of cash farm income by agricultural product from 1962 to 1984. It demonstrates the rapid rise in the value of Christmas trees from the early 1960s into the early 1980s in that county.

Table 5. Avery County Farm Cash Income 1962-1984

Year Field Crop % Tobacco % Livestock % Lumber % Shrubs % Christmas trees % Total amount
1962 18 6 10 5 61 0.2 $2,787,500
1964 13 5 8 3 70 1 $3,373,282
1966 8 5 11 5 63 8 $3,014,137
1968 13 5 10 3 61 8 $3,273,403
1970 12 4> 10 3 59 12 $4,067,681
1972 8 4 18 5 44 21 $5,148,554
1974 10 4 12 6 42 26 $6,561,156
1976 15 5 11 6 35 28 $7,165,267
1978 18 4 13 7 29 29 $10,250,475
1980 8 4 11 7 35 35 $13,867,849
1982 6 6 6 4 30 48 $16,145,544
1984 8 7 5 8 19 53 $13,673,512

(Avery County Agricultural Extension Service (1984); Stevens (1984), p. 37).

In 1985, according to National Christmas Tree Association figures, 38% of trees sold in the US were Scotch Pine, 17% Douglas Fir, 8% Balsam Fir, 8% White Pine, 5% Fraser Fir, 4% Blue Spruce, 4% White Spruce, and 16% all others which includes 11 different spruces and pines (Ladd, 1985).

Fraser fir production in North Carolina continued to increase. Following a visit to a February 25, 1982, NCCTA meeting, John Hendee with the US Forest Service made the following comments. “Only one million trees were sold from North Carolina last year (1981), but 8.5 million Christmas trees were planted” (Hendee, 1982). This growth of the industry resulted in “Christmas tree revenues exceeded pulpwood revenues from private lands in the mountain counties last year and will soon exceed returns from pulpwood on nonindustrial private forest land statewide” (Hendee, 1982) The “short-rotation timber” was finally making its influence felt.

Increasing production was further documented in Huxtser’s March 24, 1988, memo where an ever greater market-share of Fraser fir was envisioned.

In 1987 we harvested approximately 2.6 million Fraser fir. Our recent marketing school in Boone, attended by 130 plus growers, heard national speakers reveal that Fraser fir is headed to be the nation’s number one and most popular species. National promotion programs and higher quality trees are stimulating increased sales.

In summary, my viewpoint at the state level, which is shared by some major growers, is that North Carolina does not have an over production problem. We do have a distribution problem. Fraser fir can obtain a 20% plus market share nationally. It is vital to communicate the ability of being a stable supplier if we as a state or county want a national marketing base.

In 1988, according to National Christmas Tree Association figures, 26% of tree sales were still Scotch pine, 19% Douglas-fir, 9% Virginia pine, 8% white pine and 38% other, which included Fraser fir (McKinley, 1997). Another one of those “other” species was Leyland cypress which was “rapidly being planted for Christmas tree production” in the South (McKinley, 1997, p. 9).

By 1989 in NC, there were an estimated 3,500 growers in 80 counties.

In the last ten years the industry has experienced phenomenal growth. The number of trees harvested has tripled to 4.1 million being cut in 1988 with a value to farmers of 55 million dollars. National production data indicate a serious over-production potential in the 1987-1990 time frame. Plantings in North Carolina in the last three years have leveled off to approximately 9 million trees. Annually harvestable production should exceed 6 million trees by 1994, 20 percent of the Nation’s demand (NC industry summary: Outlook for prospective new growers, 1989, p. 20-21).

The NCCTA was going through a period of growth throughout the 1980s that mirrored the increased production. Membership rose sharply after the NCTA meeting in Boone. In 1975, there were 69 members, in 1978 – 188, in 1981 – 294, in 1982 – 455. The year 1986 would prove a high water mark for Association memberships reaching 533 members. This would be the largest membership until 2007 when there were 534 members.

One issue that plagued the industry in the 1980s was whether or not Christmas tree growers could be viewed as a forestry industry for capitol gains. The Tax Reform Bill of 1986 would allow Christmas tree growers this designation.

Concerns about a Glut

Much of the growth of the state association was due to concerns about a glut of Christmas trees in the mid to late 1980s. North Carolina production numbers had been increasing since the late 1970s, and so had production in other parts of the country, especially in Michigan and the Pacific Northwest. According to “Christmas Tree Production in Michigan,” by Melvin Koelling, James B. Hart and Larry Leefers, “Plantings increased, particularly in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The principal species, Scotch pine, was planted in substantially larger numbers than were necessary for annual harvests. This resulted largely from strong markets and increased profitability” (Koelling et.al., 1998). “In early 1980 it was reported 90 million trees were planted for a 32-35 million tree market” (Riessen, 1996, p. 16).

This was not the first glut experienced by Christmas tree growers. “The very heavy influx of growers entering the Christmas tree field during the early 1950s has caused a depressed market in some areas. Many of these recent producers are trying to get out of the business and are selling entire plantations at reduced prices… People trying to sell out have caused some price squeeze on growers faced with rising costs each year, due primarily to high labor costs” (Kern, 1965, p. 861). There had also been a glut of trees harvested from the woods in the early part of the 1900s.

The National Christmas Tree Association membership was warned of the coming surplus by Ron Campbell at their 1983 marketing conference. Citing results from a planting and harvest survey, of the 800 responses, growers had set 8 ½ million trees but had harvested that same year only 2.3 million. And 49% of respondents had never sold a Christmas tree before (“Surplus is Coming” warns MC keynoter, Campbell, 1983). Campbell warned the glut would hit in 1985.

A 1984 Charlotte Observer article reported the following:

McNeil estimates the number of harvested trees will increase nationwide by 25% to 30% next year compared with this year.

Some growers aren’t taking the projected surpluses very seriously, Christmas tree experts say. “If you’re selling everything you’ve been growing for years, then how am I going to convince you to stop planting trees?” asks Huxster. The situation has been complicated because from 1979 to 1983, there was a shortage of fresh trees, McNeil says.

But other growers are reacting. “There’s been quite an emphasis on maintaining the quality (of N. C. trees) to out compete other tree-growing areas,” says (Kenneth) McCaskill (Jackson County Extension Agent) (Fletman, 1984).

The October 1984 issue of Limbs & Needles contained an article by Dennis Tompkins, forestry consultant, about marketing issues and a potential surplus. “Most growers are aware of the tremendous number of trees that have been planted during the last several years. However, many growers feel they will not be affected individually. We also hear claims that there will never be a surplus of quality trees” (Tompkins, 1984, p. 11). Most growers in North Carolina continued planting.

The National Christmas Tree Association conducted a national Christmas tree planting and harvest survey in 1986 (Prasad, 1987). It was mailed to 9,923 growers and completed by 1,672. According to the survey, “80% of the total Christmas tree acreage is in plantations and 20% is in natural stands” (Prasad, 1987, p. 11). There had been a 5.3% increase in planting since the previous year with an estimated 87.6 million trees planted. There were 27.2 trees harvested in 1986, but an intent to harvest 46.6 million in 1988. Tree species preferences were as follows:

In the North Central states, Scotch pine was consistently the most popular species by a wide margin. White pine was a distant second. In the Western states, Douglas fir was the most popular species. Monterey Pine and Nobel fir appear to have competed for the second largest percentage of Christmas trees harvested in the West. In the Southern states, Virginia pine represented the most popular species followed by Fraser fir. In the Northeastern states (including Pennsylvania), Scotch pine represented the largest percentage of Christmas trees harvested in 1985. Balsam fir and white spruce appear to have been the second and third most popular species, respectively, in this region. (Prasad, 1987, p. 13).

Concerns at the national level lead to the creation by the NCTA of “Operation Real Tree” – an educational, public relations marketing project. The RealTree campaign featured television weatherman, Willard Scott, to be the spokesman. In the October 1988 issue of Limbs & Needles, Scott was quoted as saying, “You don’t eat plastic turkeys at Thanksgiving… Santa Claus never slid down a plastic chimney…and there ain’t gonna be any more plastic Christmas trees” (Scott ready for RealTree campaign, 1988, p. 11). Scott was featured on the NBC Today show as well as advertisements in TV Guide magazine and banners displayed by retailers.

On the local level, North Carolina growers wanted to learn more about their place in the national Christmas tree markets. In 1983, a memorandum of agreement was drawn up with the Association providing $2,000 to fund an 8-day trip for Huxster to visit urban out-of-state markets to document tree style, species and density and correlate these with retail prices and grades.

Growers, who generally had sold only within a 200-mile radius, were now expanding to the Midwest, Gulf Coast and even the West Coast. “Last year I wasn’t aware of (North Carolina) trees going to California. Now trees are going there,” Huxster says (Fletman, 1984).

In a June 1986 article, “Some Retailing Observations” in Limbs & Needles, Jim Coan, a North Carolina Christmas tree grower and retailer , said “The glut is here! The market is becoming flooded with trees from all over the country. Near some of our locations in Texas we saw four to five times the number of lots as in 1984” (Coan, 1986, p. 31).

At a Directors Meeting, Ken Sexton, Ashe County grower and son of Byron Sexton, brought up and Waightstill Avery seconded the “possibility of considering a professionally prepared film,” which passed the board (Directors meeting, May 21, 1982 – Statesville Ag. Center, 1982). Films and commercials for television were discussed from time to time throughout the years, but enough money could never be generated to produce much on either the state or national level. However, other promotional items such as caps, bumper stickers, license plates, and coloring books for children were made available for sale by 1984. A buy-sell guide was also started by at least 1984.

In the 1970s County Extension Agents weren’t supposed to help growers with marketing – only producing a crop. But Gene Brewer and other agents felt this needed to change. Brewer remembers traveling to Raleigh to make their case to the Bob Wells, Director of Extension (Brewer, 2008). After all, many agricultural commodities such as cabbage, chicken, and dairies were having problems with poor markets. Their meeting must have been successful because Brewer shared in the interview that it quickly went from County Agents being fired if they worked on marketing to them being fired if they didn’t.

Portrait of Christmas Tree Growers in the 1980s

Part of Elizabeth Steven’s Master’s Thesis was a 45-question survey mailed to Avery County Christmas tree growers who had purchased seedlings from the Linville River Nursery in Crossnore. She mailed 150 surveys to randomly selected growers in March 1985 and received 44 usable questionnaires. The responses give a snapshot of who the typical Christmas tree grower was in the 1980s.

More than two-thirds of the respondents were lifetime Avery county residents. Half were college graduates while 21% didn’t finish High School. Ages ranged from 21 to 81 years with the average being 48.5 years. Respondents had a wide range of annual income from less than $15,000 a year to over $50,000. About 40% of respondents earned less than 10% of the annual income from growing Christmas trees. Only 3 growers had more than 60 acres. Less than 30% of the growers had started their plantation by 1975 and over 90% of those surveyed had friends who grew trees and got them interested in the business (Stevens, 1987, pp. 83-91).

More Trees to the White House

The early 1980s saw two more wins in the National Christmas Tree Association Christmas tree contest, both by Ashe County grower, Hal Jonson. In a 1984 Skyland Post article, Johnson’s Christmas tree business was described (Van Wyk, 1984). Johnson had a Masters in Journalism from Iowa State University and got a job with Progressive Farmer magazine, living in Raleigh. He had written the 1964 article, “South Has A Bright Future In Christmas Tree Business.” He bought a farm in Ashe County, complete with an abandoned house and a ghost story, “The Legend of Booger Mountain.” Like many others in Ashe County, Johnson began growing white pines and ended up growing Fraser fir. He also grew up to 23 acres of tobacco and a strawberry pick-your-own. By 1984, he had 10 tree lots in the Raleigh area where he would hand out the story of Booger Mountain (Van Wyk, 1984).

His first trip to the White House in 1982 ended up being rather interesting. On December 3, three vehicles carrying the Johnson family, Waightstill Avery, and Daylon Rogers and his wife headed to Washington, but none of the cars had a radio. It turned out that a man was trying to blow up the Washington monument that day. “Of course, we realized immediately that we were dead in the water unless the man gave up or was taken. Fortunately the crisis ended in time” (Delivering Blue Room tree, 1983, p. 3). Mrs. Reagan came to receive the tree by 10 AM and the entire ceremony proceeded as planned. Johnson and his family took another tree to the White House in 1984.

In talking about his experiences at the White House, Johnson often commented about the warmth of the First Lady. The following from a Limbs & Needles article describes his second visit to the White House.

Mrs. Reagan was very warm and wonderful. After the presentation she invited us into the White House where we had hot drinks and cookies,” said Johnson. “She reached over and touched my youngest son’s hand and said ‘Why, you’re still cold’ and pulled him over to the fireplace to warm up” (Hal Johnson family presents White House Christmas tree, 1986).

County Grower’s Associations

Many county associations were forming in the 1980s to better address local issues. Some of these associations were for both Christmas tree growers and nurserymen. The Watauga Christmas Tree and Nurseryman’s Association was the first county growers association to incorporate in North Carolina, doing so in February 1980 (Watauga County Christmas Tree Association web site, 2007). The Alleghany Christmas Tree Association formed on January 8, 1981 (Sides, 1995). The Avery County Christmas Tree Growers Association incorporated on February 1, 1982. Its stated purpose was, “To enable the Christmas tree growers in Avery County, North Carolina to grow the most beautiful and saleable Christmas trees possible and to produce said Christmas trees as efficiently and profitably as possible.” The Mitchell County Association of Christmas Tree Growers and Nurserymen was formed in 1988 from a Christmas tree association and a nurseryman’s association that had each formed in 1987 (Vance, 1997).

County associations worked to make sure their associations complimented rather than rivaled the State Association. At the same May 21 meeting, Tom Foxx, then president of the Watauga County Association, “expressed appreciation for opportunity to meet with us and state his eagerness to assist us in the State Association and especially to strive in getting more state members” (Directors meeting May 21, 1982 – Statesville Ag. Center, 1982).

Christmas in July

In Ashe County, growers were wondering how to bring more buyers into the county. Their answer was to create a festival called, “Christmas in July.” Started in 1987, Christmas in July was initially a three-day festival held around the 4th with an emphasis on traditional music such as country, bluegrass and gospel which often included a visit from legendary Doc Watson (Ashe County festival continues to grow, 1989). Crafts were an important part of the festival as well as – of course – food. “A major purpose of ‘Christmas in July’ is to attract Christmas tree buyers from all over the United States to see the estimated 10,000,000 Christmas trees of all ages growing on Ashe County farms. Other objectives of the festival are to show off Ashe County’s heritage and local craftsmen” (“Christmas in July”, 1987). Kitty Lawrence with the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce wrote the following in the December 1992 issue of Limbs & Needles. “Some of the events during the first festival were a Miss Evergreen Beauty Pageant, an artificial tree burial presided over by Commissioner of Agriculture, Jim Graham, Christmas tree plantation tours, and wreath and rope making contests” (Lawrence, 1982).

According to notes written by Jim Carey, County Extension Director in Ashe County, the idea was conceived in a brain storming session of the Ashe County Christmas Tree Grower’s Association one February night at Eldreth’s motel and restaurant in Jeffernson. Jim writes, “Our growers felt and still feel that we grow the best trees anywhere in the nation and that with the right type of marketing program we can expand markets for all Ashe County tree farms.” Hal Gimlin is credited with coming up with the Festival idea. As it turned out, the Chamber of Commerce and West Jefferson merchants Association were exploring ways to stimulate the economy in the business sector of town. Through the years, Ashe County grower Howard Covington would help with fund raising for the event.

Choose and Cut

Choose and cut – farms where customers select their tree and either cut it down or have someone cut it for them – had become an important part of the Christmas tree industry in other states in the 1970s (Davis, 1996). In fact, “By the end of the 1970s, one-fourth of all tree sales were from choose and cut farms – a trend that continues today” (Davis, 1996, p. 10). Eastern North Carolina farms were predominately choose and cut, but except for a few farms in western North Carolina, Fraser fir producers were by and large strictly wholesales in the early 1980s. At the September 21, 1982, annual meeting at Lake Junaluska, Wilson Barr, “stated there was more interest and need for Choose and Cut operations” (Wagoner, 1982, September 24).

The Charlotte Observer ran an article largely quoting Huxster about the growing choose and cut segment (Moore, 1984). Still, all of the farms discussed in the article were in the Piedmont including Catawba, Cleveland, Mecklenburg, Iredell, Moore, Rutherford, Stanly counties in NC and Chester and York counties in SC selling include white pine, Virginia pine, red cedar, and Scotch pine for $15 to $35.

A 1987 Directory of Choose and Cut farms printed by the NCCTA was a 4- page bulletin. It was the first to be produced by the association (N.C. State fair booth highlights choose & cut promotional program, 1989). There are 22 farms listed from 17 counties and only 6 of the farms produced Fraser fir.

Alleghany County promoted a Choose and Cut day for their Christmas tree farmers (Washington, 2009). The idea was originally proposed by Jean Griffin who was Director of Wilkes County Community College in Alleghany at a brain storming session with the Board of Directors of the Alleghany Chamber of Commerce. The first countywide Choose and Cut Day was in 1987 and only 10 growers were involved. The first Saturday in December was selected as the annual choose and cut promotional day. Griffin worked with craft vendors at the Higgins Center with the County Fairground in Sparta, and a central location was set up in town under a tent near the Hardees with maps to the various farms and examples of their products. This booth was manned by Jerry Washington, Alleghany County Extension Agent who had been involved with Christmas tree production since the late 1970s, as well as others from the County Association. The Chamber of Commerce had supplied funding for advertising in Charlotte, and many who came were from that area. Participating growers were reminded that they were not selling a tree, but an experience and it was suggested in those early years that they charge about $5 per tree above their wholesale prices.

That first year, many of the growers that participated were new to the business and had never sold any trees before. One exception was the Motsingers in the Roaring Gap area who had sold choose and cut but had stopped because of problems such as people cutting the top six feet out of a nine foot tree.

Washington remembers wondering if people would really come so far and pay so much money for their Christmas tree. Surveys were sent to customers who had registered at the Chamber of Commerce booth. Washington says he would always remember one letter in particular that came back. The letter started out by saying that between gas, lunch, buying crafts as well as the tree, their family had spent $85 for a tree that would have cost them $35 in Charlotte. This confirmed all of Washington’s fears. But then the letter ended by saying that their family had had a wonderful time and would be back next year. That’s when he realized what choose and cut could bring to the area. In fact, customers drive on average farther to purchase a choose and cut tree from North Carolina growers than in any other state that produces Christmas trees.

Another Way to Market

In 1983, Waightstill Avery began something that was again considered a risky business. He started selling Frasers through mail order. “In 1984, the product was featured on the cover of the American Express Christmas Catalog. For $59.95, a perfect six foot Fraser fir plus stand was shipped by United Parcel Service to the buyer’s door (Stevens, 1987, p. 73). Others would follow suit, eventually selling Christmas trees in stands and wreaths and other greenery through mail order. The advent of the Internet would make this method of selling trees even easier.

Changes to the Work Force

With larger farms and more trees in the ground, their was a general lack of labor for the Christmas tree industry.

During the early 1980s, the larger Christmas tree operations had grown to the point that more labor was needed than simply immediate family or friends who could devote a few hours of time to work on the weekends. Several growers began recruiting Hispanic workers from other crops in North Carolina. After finishing the tobacco, tomato, or other summer crop harvests, workers began to filter into the mountains to help with shearing or pruning of Christmas trees in the summer, followed by the harvest in November and December. While many workers received green cards under IRCA in 1986, the majority of the workers on Christmas tree farms in the early 1980s were undocumented laborers, almost exclusively from Mexico. Several workers mentioned they had migrated into the rural western counties of North Carolina to reduce detection risks from the INS and because work was steadier and wages higher in Christmas trees than in other crops at that time (Hamilton, 2004, p. 56).

As Hispanic farmworkers became more important, these men would start working as early as February or March and stay at the same farm year after year. Some developed their own contract labor businesses as they became more acquainted with the industry.

Changes to the Association

Meetings of the NCCTA changed considerably through the 1980s. For instance, in 1980 there were two “pine” meetings – January 23 in Statesville and January 29 in Smithfield, and four “fir” meetings – February 26 in Sylva, February 27 in Burnsville, February 28 in Newland and February 29 in West Jefferson.

However, by 1989, the Association had started the meeting cycle that is still currently used – a two-day winter meeting in late February or early March followed by a two-day summer meeting in September. In 1990, the Eastern Christmas Tree Association began, and took over meetings specifically for the Piedmont and Coastal Plain growers.

At the September 24, 1982, Directors Meeting, Waightstill Avery suggested that the Association get set up as a non-profit organization. Also at this meeting, it was voted that as much as $3,000 be allocated for secretarial expenses (Wagoner, 1982, September 24). As the Association grew, so did its needs.

At the July 25, 1986, Directors Meeting held in Sparta, “The Marketing Committee, represented by B. Walden and M. Frances, told of a recommendation to hire a Public Relations Individual to promote and advertise N.C. trees, especially at Trade Shows, locate new markets, and possibly handle publication of ‘Limbs & Needles’” (Wagoner, 1986, July 25). As stated in a November 15, 1986, letter to the membership, “We have over 500 members now, and the business end of things has grown to where it is no longer fair to ask volunteers to run the day-to-day business of the organization” (Smith, 1986).

The changes in dues would be great. In 1960, dues for the association were $7 per member. Those increased to $8 the following year and to $10 by 1962. Dues didn’t increase for 12 years, going up to $15 in 1975. These would increase again in 1983 to $25 to pay for research projects and greater promotion. Now that a full-time director was to be hired, it would require the yearly budget to be raised to about $110,000, which would in turn require substantial increases. The following dues structure was recommended (North Carolina to have full time executive director, 1986):

Table 6. Association Dues 1986

Category Membership Dues
0-5 acres $75.00
5-10 acres 125.00
10-20 acres 150.00
20-40 acres 300.00
Over 80 acres 500.00
Retailers  75.00
Non-residents 150.00
Seedlings, per acre  75.00
Allied business 100.00

Howard Love was the chairman of the committee to screen the applicants for the newly created position (NCCTA directors meeting, 1987). The advertisement ran as follows:

The North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, a 27 year old organization, seeks a full-time Executive Director. Strong marketing background, plus ability to establish and manage a business office. Business major, Bachelor’s Degree preferred, minimum of 2 years experience with marketing and promotion emphasis and management responsibilities. Salary commensurate with ability and experience. Current involvement in Christmas Tree industry may be a conflict of interest.

After a review of 108 applicants and interviews with 5 candidates, Bob N. Garner was hired as the first Executive Director July, 1987 (Wagoner, July 24, 1987, Memorandum). The following is from an October 1987 Limbs & Needles article announcing the appointment.

Garner, a former television reporter and anchorman, has been self-employed as a public relations and marketing consultant for the past ten years. In addition to promoting North Carolina Christmas trees on the national market, Garner will serve as the editor of Limbs & Needles at the association’s new office: 617 Fountain Place, Burlington.

Garner will be responsible for developing a broad marketing strategy for the association’s members. New promotional materials for trade shows and retail Christmas tree lots are already underway, and some of the other initiatives being planned include development of an expanded in-state exhibition and market for tree buyers, special one-day presentations to retailers and wholesalers in targeted metropolitan areas around the country and new approaches to clubs and civic organizations (North Carolina appoints executive director, 1987).

This would allow Daylon Rogers to step down as editor of Limbs & Needles, which he had done for 15 years. In the October 1987 write-up about Rogers it states, “Daylon served two terms as president of the North Carolina association and was instrumental in that state’s hosting the 1974 NCTA national convention. For the past nine years, Daylon has served on the board of directors of the NCTA” (Thanks, Daylon!, 1987, p. 4).

One of the new promotional materials was a full-color brochure made available for sale to NCCTA members in March 1988. The inside logo read, “The Fraser Fir: Soft, beautiful…and rugged as the mountains” (New color brochure available to NCCTA members, 1988). Also to change in 1988 was Limbs & Needles. Interested people could subscribe solely to the magazine without being a member of the Association or related Associations (North Carolina CTA members meet at Lake Junaluska, 1988).

The new Executive Director would also respond to developing questions of the industry. The following is a November 22, 1987, letter to the editor of Florida Today in Melbourne Florida from Kevin Walker:

Christmas trees already? Yes. The department stores already have their holiday décor. Want to buy a Northern tree? Think again.

The Christmas tree kings would love you to buy a Frazier fir or white pine. Especially if it comes from North Carolina. They lease land for seven years and spread tons of toxic chemicals on and around the trees – all for the love of money.

Most folks in the mountains use springs for their drinking water. Straight from the ground, mountain water is pure, cold and sweet – or it was. Now most wells show pesticide contamination from insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. Use of Paraquat, a known carcinogen, is widespread. To top it off, the trees are sprayed with green dye. Cancer is sky-rocketing! Now, these chemicals are approved by the same people who said Temik if OK and won’t hurt groundwater. Time has proved them wrong and wrong again.

As a child, I have fond memories of going into the woods in Cocoa to cut a sand pine with my mother. The smells and experience of being in nature (instead of a parking lot) heightened the pleasure. Even pine sap on the hands brings back childhood Christmas memories.

May I suggest cutting your own tree from the woods. Most pine forests in Brevard will be burned by lightning fires or will soon be concrete and asphalt.

Now is also a good time to go to local nurseries to purchase living Christmas trees. Norfolks pines, juniper and cedar are good choices. Planted in the yard after Christmas, they’ll make homes for birds and live for years. Don’t have time to care for them between now and Christmas? Most nurseries would be happy to hold them a few weeks to a month for you.

As a last resort, plastic or aluminum trees are better than Northern trees.

Think that you’ll put North Carolinians out of work? Ninety-nine percent who work in Christmas trees are migrant Mexicans and they don’t care it they spread Paraquat.

The decision is yours. Will you choose life or death? (Walker, 1987).

Bob Garner sent a response on September 22, 1987, refuting Walker’s claims of well contamination, use of Paraquat and skyrocketing cancer rates. Included in the letter are the following remarks:

North Carolina’s Christmas tree industry provides considerable enhancement to the quality of life in the region. While the trees are growing, they’re enriching the environment by controlling erosion, helping protect the water supply, supporting wildlife and improving the land aesthetically. Not only that, but two or three Christmas trees are usually planted for every one that’s harvested.

Our state’s Christmas tree growers share with farmers everywhere a sincere concern for the environment. Most of their families have lived in the mountainous Christmas tree region for several generations, so they certainly have as great an interest in the area’s environmental future as newer residents, many of whom chose to relocate from Florida.

To suggest that Floridians not buy North Carolina Christmas trees because chemicals are used to control weeds, pests and diseases makes no more sense than to propose that North Carolinians boycott Florida citrus products for the same reasons (Garner, 1987).

Garner said that his office in Burlington was often visited by John Wagoner and Bill Huxster, but in many ways he was otherwise somewhat isolated from the growers. Having the NCCTA office in Burlington was difficult when the majority of production was in the mountains.

At the 1989 summer meeting in Boone, the board of directors heard “a presentation from a delegation representing Fraser fir growers in western counties. Spokesmen for this group, reporting on sentiment voiced at preliminary meetings in the Fraser fir growing area, expressed a desire to have some sort of marketing entity, whether a sub-group within the state association or an entirely separate group, to deal exclusively with Fraser fir marketing concerns” (North Carolina studies new structure at annual meeting, 1989, p. 2). During those last few months, several people had started thinking about a new promotional plan as well as relocating the NCCTA office to Boone. The end result was the start of the Fraser fir promotional committee. Starting in 1990, the dues structure would be lowered to $50 to all growers plus an additional $0.05 per tree sold for Fraser fir growers. This would go solely to Fraser fir promotion (Successful NC meeting boosts new promotional plan, 1990, p.2). Not wanting to relocate to Boone, Garner decided to give up his position with the NCCTA at the end of 1989.

Getting Serious about Getting Better

In establishing the seed orchard in Crossnore, attempts had been made to select superior individual trees so that their offspring or progeny would be better. However, no one really knew if these trees were better or not. The NC Forest Service tree improvement program would do the work to evaluate the progeny from individual trees in the Lodge Orchard. Each progeny would be evaluated four times before a final determination was made as to the value of the parent. From these selections, a new orchard was started at the Linville River Nursery between 1983 and 1985. Also in 1985, some of the trees were moved to Macon County outside of Highlands on US Forest Service property on 8.5 acres for a future seed orchard. K. O. Summerville would be in charge of many of these studies which included not just Fraser fir, but Virginia and white pine as well (Leggins, C, 2009).

During the 1980s an even more ambitious project began. In 1978, Joe Weber, a PhD student under Bruce Zobel, geneticist with NCSU, had collected seed from the different seed sources and elevations to determine the geographic differences in Fraser fir. That student later left the University to take another job, leaving the seed in the cooler.

Dr. J.B. Jett was working for the tree improvement coop at NCSU, which was a partnership between the University, Weyerhauser and other timber companies. He decided to take on the project with Christmas trees with funding from the Richardson Trust Foundation which originated with the family that made Vic’s Vapor Rub. This group owned Bald Mountain which, as part of their enterprises, raised Christmas trees.

The seed was started in the greenhouses at Weyerhauser in December of 1980, put in line-out beds in Crossnore in 1982, and planted out in the field in 1983 in three locations: Bald Mountain between Watauga and Ashe Counties, the Linville River Nursery in Crossnore, and Purchase Knob in Haywood County. These trees would be measured more than any Fraser fir ever had through the years to learn how traits such as height, straightness of the tree, fullness and color were controlled by genetics. It would be the next decade before it was learned just how important this study would be.

Other Research Continues at NCSU

The Association was still trying to support research projects at NCSU. In a February 16, 1982, Directors Meeting in Jefferson, “A discussion ensued over the possibility of spending some of (the Association’s) money for help towards some type of research projects. Hal Johnson felt that we should consider giving a definite amount each year” (Wagoner, 1982, February 16). George Kriz with NCSU was asked to invite proposals for the consideration of funding by the Association. In October 14, 1982, the following funds were allocated: $1,750 for Entomology on Insecticidal Soaps, $1,750 to Soil Science on yellowing and needle drop, $750 for Horticulture on ground cover, and $1,000 ($500 from a personal donation) for Plant Pathology on Phytophthora root rot (Wagoner, 1982, October 14). By 1985, funding for research was up to $5,000 per year.

Research in the 1980s took on several serious projects. One was producing seed. Fraser fir seed crop was never very reliable. Even in years when seed set was heavy, the percentage of viable seed was low. Two graduate students under the direction of Jett, Roger Arnold and Anne Margaret Braham, evaluated nutrition factors,  female flower production and differences in pollen production between the seed orchard in Crossnore and natural stands in Roan Mountain.

Jim Shelton continued working on nutritional requirements of Fraser fir, and in particular the relationship between low calcium levels and premature needle shed in the field. Frank Blazich evaluated many techniques for vegetative propagation of the various important species of conifers grown for Christmas trees. Eric Hinesley was also evaluating many aspects of fertility and propagation, as well as storage requirements for cut trees. Walt Skroch was beginning work on ground cover management and the use of Roundup in Christmas trees.

One problem of extreme importance to the industry was control of Phytophthora root rot. Bob Bruck along with Mike Benson, Ron Jones and Larry Grand worked throughout the 1980s to further understand control of Phytophthora in Fraser fir and other ornamentals, particularly azaleas and rhododendrons. One of the products being evaluated was Ridomil, a Ciba-Geigy fungicide that controlled Phytophthora. Field trials at the Linville River Nursery in Crossnore demonstrated the fungicide would control the disease.

One of the first research reviews by NCSU was conducted on October 13, 1981, at the McKimmon Center on campus (Wagoner, 1981, September 11). This review highlighted research that had taken place over the last 4 years and the research that would take place over the next 4 years. Another was held on February 27, 1987, (Phillips, J. A., 1987) and a third on September 13, 1990, at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center in Fletcher, NC (Kriz, 1990).

The next twenty years would see increased refinement of production practices as the industry answered not just how to grow trees, but how to grow them efficiently, cost-effectively, and in an environmentally friendly way.

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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