Growing Holiday Traditions
At the Triangle’s Christmas tree farms, families return year after year to pick a Fraser fir from the North Carolina Mountains or a locally grown cedar, pine, or cypress.
By Corbie Hill
Byron and Diana May have a picture of the first customer to buy a Christmas tree from their Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm, and they still see that family every year. Time has passed and that family’s life has changed accordingly—the kids have gone off to college and grown up, things like that—yet they still return to Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm every year for a tree. The Mays, who grow Christmas trees as a “full-time hobby,” Byron jokes, see a lot of families do the same thing. Customers return, year after year, to pick the perfect tree.
“We’re a part of the Christmas experience for a lot of folks,” Byron says.
When the Mays started in this business in 1994, they were among the younger Christmas tree farmers locally. Nowadays, the old-timers who helped the Mays learn the ropes have either retired or passed away, and there simply aren’t as many Christmas tree growers in the Triangle area. Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm is west of Raleigh and, as the name suggests, near Jordan Lake. Within the Oak City there’s Back Achers Christmas Tree Farm and Boyce Farms, on the south and north sides of town, respectively. Among these Christmas tree farmers, there’s still that same camaraderie the Mays experienced when they first started.
There are more customers looking for trees than any one farm could handle, Byron points out, so there’s no need to compete.
“Everybody knows everybody just about,” says Mike Boyce. “There’s really no competition. The same goal is to sell a fresh Christmas tree.”
Boyce Farms and Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm both grow the trees that will do well in the Piedmont—white pine, Leyland cypress, cedar—and they stock the holy grail of Christmas trees, the Fraser fir. This is the tree that has everything, Boyce points out. Fraser firs hold their needles the longest and have excellent fragrance. And they have strong limbs that will hold Hallmark ornaments, he says, something other trees won’t support.
“The Fraser firs are native to North Carolina,” Boyce adds. “This is the only place they’re native to.” Like the Mays, he gets his Fraser firs from growers in the North Carolina mountains, and he understands why these trees are in such high demand.
“It’s very hard in other states to get a Fraser fir that fills out like they do in North Carolina,” Boyce says. “We’re No. 2 in trees behind Oregon, but our Fraser firs are No. 1.”
On his farm, Boyce allows customers to cut their own tree. If you want to cut your own Fraser fir, he says, it’s possible to do so at one of the many farms a few hours west in the North Carolina mountains. (True to the camaraderie among Christmas tree growers, he has no problem with locals doing so if they’d rather.)
Buying a Christmas tree is more than just a simple transaction; Boyce knows it’s an experience. “You’re in the open air and it’s just fun to be outside,” he says. “It’s a good time of year.”
Indeed, the joys of the selling season, which lasts from the weekend before Thanksgiving until the trees sell out, make the hard work and occasional frustrations during the rest of the year worthwhile. The growing cycle for most trees is about six years, Byron explains, but you can get set back if there’s no rain one year and your trees don’t thrive.
“Growing Christmas trees is a 12-month endeavor,” he says. “You’re planting, then you get fertilizer, then weed control. You’re trimming trees once or twice a year, and then you get them prepped for selling.”
January and February tend to be pretty quiet on the farm, as it’s too cold to plant, but every other month there’s something that needs doing. The selling part, he says, is the easiest part—and the most fun. In fact, it’s a tradition on the farm’s side as much as on the customer side.
“Most of the folks who work with us have been here at least 10, if not 15, years,” says Diana, explaining that many employees started as high school kids and, despite being in their 30s and having full-time jobs, they still fit seasonal work at Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm into their busy lives. “It’s amazing to me that they want to come back every year and work,” she says. “It’s part of their Christmas season, part of their celebration.”