Originally created 11/29/97

Selecting trees complicated



HOBOKEN, Ga. -- Selecting a Christmas tree from dozens on a lot can take some people hours. But when the choice is to be made from a field of more than 3,000 live trees, the task can take all day.

And more often than not, it does, said Gerald Thomas, who owns and runs what state officials say is southeast Georgia's only choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm.

"Quite a few people come up from Jacksonville, bring a picnic lunch, pick out a tree and then go home," said Mr. Thomas, whose Big Creek Christmas Trees is on U.S. Highway 82 in Brantley County.

Although there are about 250 Christmas tree farmers in the state, University of Georgia agriculture extension service agents say most are in north Georgia.

In fact, Mr. Thomas' operation is the only large-scale Christmas tree farm in southeast Georgia, said David Moorhead, a University of Georgia forestry professor who is considered the state's Christmas tree expert.

The industry is declining in the state, Mr. Moorhead said.

The reason: Trees that thrive in Georgia -- the sand pines, red cedars and Virginia pines -- are not very popular with tree buyers, he added.

Georgia farmers haven't been able to compete with Northern growers because they cannot raise the blue spruces, Scotch pines and Douglas firs many people prefer. Those trees need cool nights to thrive.

"The hot nights here get to them," Mr. Moorhead said. "We had a whole lot of people planting trees in the '80s. But a lot of growers went out of business."

In the early 1980s, Georgia had about 500 Christmas tree farms.

While some Georgia farmers, like Mr. Thomas, say they have a steady clientele, many others say they don't. And farmers in Michigan and North Carolina get most of the business from Southern retailers, Mr. Moorhead said.

Nationally, more than 35 million acres are dedicated to Christmas trees.

Mr. Thomas raises more than 3,000 sand pines, red cedars and Virginia pines on his 8-acre farm. The highlight of his year is when children bring their parents to choose a tree from his lot.

"The kids just run and play in the trees," said Mr. Thomas, who gives each a candy cane. "Some of them don't have this much room to run around in Ãat home´."

Mr. Thomas opens his farm to visitors from Thanksgiving Day to Dec. 23. He lends people the handsaws they use to cut the trees, and he helps place the trees in the plastic netting that makes them easier to bring home.

Trees for sale range from 5 feet tall to 12 feet tall. Cedars cost $20, and pines cost $25.

The only trees Mr. Thomas sells are those people choose and cut themselves, and he sells about 500 each year, he said.

Although the sales are seasonal, Mr. Thomas said the farm keeps him busy all year. To ensure tree-cutters' safety, he said he has to maintain the grounds year-round, keeping anthills under control, trimming weeds and filling in potholes.

And then there is tree maintenance.

In the spring, he battles new weeds and fertilizes the trees.

Pines and cedars usually don't grow into the perfect Christmas tree shape; summertime pruning shapes them up.

Trimming the trees in the dead of summer, Mr. Thomas said, "is really not that much fun."

In the fall, he sprays dye on the limbs so they'll be green through the holidays.

But when families begin arriving, Mr. Thomas said he forgets the work and enjoys himself.

"I like to see people get them and have a big time with them," he said.

Mr. Thomas has allowed people to choose their own trees on his farm since 1994, and he said he's beginning to recognize people who return year after year.

"We've pretty much gotten to know them by face," he said.

He also knows many people's style of picking out a tree.

"Some of them will walk all around the whole lot, looking at every tree," he said. Some will pick out trees that have no chance of fitting in a house. And some children, to their parents' horror, will insist on a "Charlie Brown" model that's not quite ready for sale.

Dudley Spell, Mr. Thomas' brother-in-law, helps maintain the farm. He, too, espouses the joys of a choose-and-cut operation.

"People can walk all around the tree and see how it will look in their living room," he said. And because the trees are cut just days before Christmas, they'll keep their needles and color well into January, he said.

Many trees bought from lots are cut weeks -- and sometimes months -- before Christmas, Mr. Moorhead said.

"Some of the trees from out of state are in pretty bad shape when they get here," Mr. Moorhead said. "If you can get a pretty fresh tree locally, you won't have a dry tree with the foliage falling off."