From drought to infestation, an inside look at the lives of Christmas tree farmers

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Billy and Mary Apperson Stand inside the "tree house" at MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm, in James City County. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)
Bill and Mary Apperson stand inside the “tree house” at MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm, in James City County. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)

The smell of pine needles filled the air as Christmas tree farmer Bill Apperson leaned back in a worn armchair at MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm, sipping hot apple cider.

Apperson’s eyes scanned the inside of the building, nicknamed the “tree house,” while he pondered, looking up at hanging spools of shimmering Christmas ribbon over a counter, old photographs and an old-fashioned wood stove.

“There’s a hole in the inventory this year,” Apperson said. “We lost a whole field of Norway spruce about five years ago … but give it a couple years and the hole in the inventory will be gone again.”

As Americans across the country are picking out their perfect Christmas tree this month, many Christmas tree farmers are working to sustain their tree crops through droughts and non-typical climates.

While his trees are bushy and a handsome deep-green color, Apperson – a retired forester from the Virginia Department of Forestry – said his farm is still facing a shortage of 7- to 8-foot-tall trees due to a drought several years ago.

Billy and Mary Apperson Stand inside the "tree house" at MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm, in James City County.
Bill and Mary Apperson stand inside the “tree house” at MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm, in James City County. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)

To make up for the shortage, Apperson has had to import some trees from Christmas tree farms in southwest Virginia, where large-scale commercial tree farms stretch for miles.

“Our trees have all been grown by us for a while now – this year, about one-third of what we are selling came from southwest Virginia,” he said.

Weather impacting Christmas trees

While most Christmas trees at roadside stands and big box stores look green and full, droughts and other weather conditions can easily affect the number of Christmas trees available each year.

In James City County, Apperson is dealing with a shortage of 7- to 8-foot-tall Christmas trees – the most popular size.

“You see a lot of 2-, 3- or 4-foot-tall trees, and then a lot of 9-, 10- or 11-foot-tall trees,” Apperson said. “But you don’t see much in between.”

Apperson has grown Christmas trees in James City County for 45 years, and takes care of the farm’s crops while his wife, son and daughter in-law take care of the books and business.

Younger Christmas trees typically are the ones to die off during droughts, Apperson said, reducing that year’s crop and stunting growth. Several years later, when that crop should have grown to 7 or 8 feet tall, farmers are left with a smaller crop or trees that are too short, he said.

The "tree house" at MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm is where Christmas tree customers can buy their trees and other goods. MillFarm is facing a shortage of 7- to 8-foot-tall trees this year due to a drought several years ago.
The “tree house” at MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm is where customers buy their trees and other goods. MillFarm is facing a shortage of 7- to 8-foot-tall trees this year due to a drought several years ago. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)

In southwest Virginia, some farmers are also dealing with drought conditions.

This year’s severe drought across parts of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina has left Christmas tree farmers in Smyth County, Va. concerned that they may face a smaller crop in the future, said Andy Overbay, Smyth County’s senior agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“The drought will probably manifest itself in two or three years when those trees should be coming to market,” Overbay said.

Beyond causing a shortage of Christmas trees, droughts can also affect the trees’ quality.

Droughts can cause the trees to change from deep-green to turn brown, said Kevin Spurlin, senior agriculture and natural resources agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Grayson County.

Grayson County, located in Southwest Virginia, is one of the state’s top Christmas tree producers. Some Christmas tree sellers in Grayson County wholesale up to 700,000 trees each season, Spurlin said.

The drought hasn’t affected Grayson County as much as Smyth County, but it can still leave its mark, he said.

“A drought will slow the trees’ growth and impact the color as much as anything,” Spurlin said. “That’s kind of a big deal. Color is pretty important because people want to buy the deep green color for aesthetics.”

The trees also may not retain their needles as well, Spurlin said, meaning homeowners will be spending more time vacuuming or sweeping up needles.

Finding the right species

MillFarm Christmas Trees sells a large range of species, which can be beneficial when there’s a bad growing season or trees are hit with bugs or disease, Apperson said. The farm grows Leland cyprus, white pine, Norway spruce, red cedar, Arizona Cyprus, Carolina sapphire, Canaan fir, Norman fir, and more.

“We like to have a variety, so if one fails, the others may not,” Apperson said. “If you lose ten percent of your plantation every year, in ten years you won’t have a plantation anymore.”

“It’s the same reason people like Fords or Chevys,” Apperson’s wife, Mary Apperson, added. “Different people have different tastes in what they like.”

MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry farm has imported Christmas trees this year after facing a shortage due to drought. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)
MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry farm has imported Christmas trees this year after facing a shortage due to drought. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)

Apperson has worked to find species that will survive in eastern Virginia – a low and relatively warm climate. James City County is about 50 feet above sea level, and many Christmas tree species thrive at over 3,000 feet, he said.

For example, he said, you can grow Fraser firs in James City County, but they grow slower and are less profitable for farmers. On the other hand, Canaan firs grow fast and are profitable, but are prone to root rot and disease in the James City County area.

“You need to figure out what nature wants to grow where,” he said.

In southwest Virginia, where Christmas tree farms are more common, it’s not unusual for farmers to grow several species because some fare better in adverse weather, Overbay said,

In southwest Virginia, the most commonly grown and sought-after Christmas tree is the Fraser fir, a species that originated in Grayson County.

“You’ll see hillside after hillside of Fraser firs in some counties, especially Grayson,” Overbay said. “Fraser firs are the Cadillac of the Christmas trees.”

Sustainability

Apperson said his farm typically only sells home-grown trees, but this year, things changed. This Christmas, only about two-thirds of the Christmas trees at the farm were grown in James City County.

“We get the trees from some farmers in southwest Virginia, but they’re just like us,” Apperson said. “We stand behind our products and theirs, too.”

MillFarm Christmas Trees, which is considered a small choose and cut tree farm, plants about 1,000 Christmas trees per acre on their 25-acre farm, Apperson said.

Because the farm is small, Apperson also sells blackberries, strawberries and blueberries the rest of the year.

“The fruit fills the holes and helps sustain the farm,” Apperson said.

(Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)
Because MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm is small, Apperson also sells blackberries, strawberries and blueberries to make ends meet the rest of the year. (Sarah Fearing/ WYDaily)

A Christmas tree farm can sometimes be sustained by only selling trees – other times, farmers need a secondary source of income, Overbay said.

“Farms are kind of like car dealerships,” Overbay said. “You’ll have everyone from guys that own NASCAR teams, to guys that fix up cars and sell them outside their mobile homes. … Sustainability has a lot to do with that person’s goals.”

“There are folks that grow trees in their backyard and sell a tree or two, and then there are the ones that sell thousands every year,” he continued.

In Grayson County, there are many farmers who make their living by selling only Christmas trees.

“A lot of our people grow them for retail lots, so they’re selling them wholesale to other places like grocery store chains, big box stores or roadside lots,” Spurlin said. “Each farmer is a little different. Big commercial growers make up most of what we have here, and that is their primary source of income.”

A labor of love

Although it may seem simple from an outside perspective, growing and maintaining Christmas trees is a year-round business, Overbay said.

“It’s not a plant and forget situation,” he said. “You nurture those trees, you suppress weeds, you shape them. There’s all sorts of work in those trees, and starting out requires someone with deep pockets.”

Giving people the “full Christmas experience” is part of what makes the Christmas tree business fun for the Appersons, Mary Apperson said.

“They run all over the farm and have such a great time,” she said. “It’s very hard to please a whole group of adults and children with one activity, but here we see everyone having real fun.”

If you want to go…

MillFarm Christmas Trees & Berry Farm is located at 4900 Fenton Mill Road in Williamsburg, James City County. Hours vary depending on the season and are posted on the farm’s Facebook page. The farm will be open this weekend from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Fearing can be reached at 207-975-5459.