Kinship Takes Root at Lee’s Trees Choose-and-Cut Farm
Come March, while we admire the snow-white blooms of Bradford pears and try to avoid their fishy scent, Lee and Mannon Eldreth will still be focusing on trees of a more festive (and better-smelling) variety.
As the owners of Lee’s Trees in Ashe County, the Eldreths tend our cherished Fraser firs through every season. But since it takes about seven years for trees to reach maturity, it isn’t just next Christmas that’s on the Eldreths’ minds when they plant tree seedlings in the early spring. Since 1974, the couple has always been thinking many Christmases ahead. In the North Carolina High Country, raising firs until they reach their peak green glory requires time and a level of patience that is intrinsic to who these farmers are.
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A tree is only as beautiful as its needles are strong. What separates a good Fraser fir from any other type of Christmas tree is the softness of its needles, and the strength of its branches to withstand the weight of even the heaviest ornament.
“You have to produce a quality tree to get people to come back,” Lee says in a straightforward manner.
After Lee retired from the military, the Eldreths, now in their 80s, moved back to these hills where they grew up and fell in love. They had a few acres of land that they hoped to cultivate to make additional income, so they went into the tree business. At first, they were growing several hundred trees. They now have around 4,000.
Lee keeps pretty quiet most of the time, but doesn’t shy away from talking about the ins and outs of caring for the evergreen.
“The biggest problem is making sure you keep the bugs off of them and keep the weeds from growing,” he says.
Those aphids, they’re troublemakers.
So long as the tree is healthy, it’s perfect in Lee’s eyes — even though those who visit his farm can sometimes have some pretty strong tree preferences. Short and full-bodied. Tall and slender. But Lee sings the praises of any tree he sells, because if Lee sells it, it means he’d hang his own star on it.
That’s the beauty of choose-and-cut farm. You’re not spending time scavenging in a strip-mall parking lot. You’re offered the unique experience of not only shaking hands with the farmer as you would at a summer produce stand, but you’re also invited onto the farm to see how the thing you’re about to buy is grown before it’s even harvested. You can’t do that with a cabbage.
As the nation’s second-largest producer of Christmas trees, North Carolina harvests about 4.3 million trees annually. But quantity doesn’t diminish quality here in the High Country, where Fraser firs thrive in mild summers and cold winters, and appreciate an altitude above 3,000 feet. Our state’s official tree is indigenous to the southern Appalachian Mountains, and the majority of North Carolina’s choose-and-cut farms are found in seven western counties, with Ashe County being the most bountiful.
But just because Fraser firs thrive best in the High Country doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to uproot the trees and replant them in the flat lands of eastern North Carolina, Lee says.
“The first year you think it’ll grow, but it won’t grow, and then it will just dry up,” Lee says with a chuckle.
The true holiday experience of visiting a choose-and-cut farm in the mountains can’t be replicated. Out-of-towners come in droves from all over, everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Mississippi. That’s important when you consider how crucial the Christmas tree industry is to the local economy.
“A lot of land that was once used for cattle and tobacco is now used for Christmas trees,” say Jennifer Greene, executive director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association.
By simply existing, many of these tree farms have staved off commercial development and maintained green spaces, Greene says.
While a Christmas tree is your living room’s statement decoration, it also happens to be the livelihood of a farmer.
And the lives — not just the business — of the people the Eldreths meet during the Christmas season are important to them, too.
“We’re sort of surrogate grandparents to some of these families,” Mannon says. “It just pleases us to see them come back year after year and to see the children grow.”
Each year, Mannon makes about 1,000 cookies to hand out to guests to eat next to the indoor fireplace.
“They come in and get hot cider, hot chocolate, coffee, my cookies, and a hug,” she says.
But the best goodies aren’t always the tangible ones. It’s “How are you?” and “Good to see you again” that repeat customers hear. And of course there’s the scent of a fresh-cut tree.
“When you bring a Fraser fir into your home where it’s warm, the pine smell is just wonderful,” Mannon says.
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After more than three and a half decades of selling Christmas trees, the 2015 holiday season will likely be the second to last for Lee’s Trees. Keeping up with the farm has become more challenging with the passing of time, and Lee thinks that concluding next year — when he’s 85 years old — makes for a good, long legacy.
“I’m just happy to be of service and happy to try to make everybody else happy,” Lee says.
You can’t ask for more than that.