Rambling in his beat-up white golf cart past a row of Scotch pines, John Knight eased off the gas. The engine, muttering like a mini-Sherman tank, cranked down to a low-pitched thrum.
The cart rolled to a stop under light-gray skies in the southwest corner of his 45-acre Christmas tree farm. Draping his arms on the steering wheel, the 68-year-old looked out on a fraction of the 36,000 trees on his Edmond land.
People told him he was crazy to start this farm, he said. Even his dad.
“He was a tree man and he understood trees real well,” Knight said. “And he couldn’t understand why I was planting these – he called ’em cedars. He knew what they were. He knew they were spruce and pine and firs.
“He said, ‘Ya know, you’ve been a pretty good kid most of your life. You’ve always had an ability to be prosperous, do well. But I don’t understand this deal with these cedar trees you’re plantin’ up there. Nobody’s gonna buy those cedar trees.
“You’re just gonna have to burn those suckers.’”
His dad Willie passed away before his son’s dream grew up, but it prospered – after two destroyed crops and nearly quitting. Now hundreds of families drive out to Knight’s Sorghum Mill Christmas Tree and Blackberry Farm every November and December.
It’s a tradition for most. Scattered families brave the chill to weave through lanes of deep-green trees. Most cut them down themselves; others let the seasonal farmhands do it. It only takes a few hours for kids and couples to find the perfect tree to last the holidays. The memories survive far longer.
For an agricultural enterprise crowned with spreading holiday cheer and family memories, Christmas tree farming is a tough and risky business.
After the initial investment of planting and, perhaps, irrigation, don’t expect any money back for several years. Most growers will sell trees when they reach five feet tall. Buyers usually prefer seven to eight feet. Virginia pines grow fast and well in Oklahoma – no more than five years for a marketable tree.
Hail, tornadoes, drought and fire can wipe out a year’s planting or the entire crop. Merrill Snider and his extended family members have run the Goddard Tree Farm in Norman since 1969. He and his wife Shirley helped her parents, Lillie Mae and Fred Goddard, plant the first trees. Amid other hardships through the years, hail slammed down on the field two years ago.
“You could walk up through the field and see which direction the hail was falling,” Snider said. “The north sides of the trees were just beat to death almost.”
They trudged on with sales, however, successfully pointing out to tree pickers that one side of the tree is usually facing the wall anyway.
Nantucket pine tip moths emerge in early spring and lay eggs in the tips of pine branches. The larvae eat and bore through the various parts. Multiple branches on a tree can die or deform, making the tree unsellable. Growers have to spray against them.
Knight almost quit twice before he brought in his first crop. Deaths in the family once caused him to miss spraying. The tree damage stopped all sales that year. Hail stripped most of the trees to stalks in another year. In the early 1990s, a tornado ripped apart one tree field.
The trees demand year-round maintenance for the best quality. Snider’s right-hand man is his son-in-law, Kevin Brown. The Goddard Farm lays out aluminum-pipe aerial sprayers that they maneuver about five rows at a time. Last summer’s drought kept Brown busy with constant night watering.
“When it’s a hundred degrees, it’s pretty hot and strenuous work,” Brown said. “We went for close to 100 days of moving pipe almost every single day.”
Twice a year, the trees need to be sheared into their familiar Christmas-tree shape. Knight’s seasonal workers strap on 40-pound, gas-powered trimmers that can run for two hours on a tank. There are 36,000 or so trees on Knight’s main farm and he struggles to find even seasoned landscape workers willing to shear on a grand scale.
Other work on the farm is just as hard.
“We handle these big ol’ trees and some of ’em weigh 250 pounds and take five guys,” he said. “We do a lot of shovel work, posthole digging – a lot of manual labor.”
With his smaller operation, Snider personally sheared nearly 2,000 trees this year. The 73-year-old trimmed about three to four hours a day over two months.
Farmers have to consider soil too. The best is slightly acidic and loamy. Oklahoma’s heavy clay stunts growth or kills. New trees are most often planted as seedlings. Irrigation is almost a must in central Oklahoma because droughts can kill entire fields.
Drought and heat turned about 2,000 evergreens to brown in 2011, shutting down a more than 20-year-old farm in Purcell. White’s Christmas Trees in Noble lost the last of hundreds of trees to drought and stopped selling a year ago. The grower, Luke Canon, had put 15 years into his “experiment,” 10 of those as a seller.
The double assault of heat and drought is deadly. “If it’s a young plant without water, its establishment is almost impossible,” he said. “As far as my spruce – it just cooked the needles on the tree.”
Canon is not giving up yet, though. He wants to start again with one key addition: irrigation.
Snider’s farm in Norman is a part-time operation; he’s also a realtor. Knight’s year-round farm work, including landscaping sales, fluctuates from running it on his own to employing 60 or 70 people in November/December to haul trees, run mechanical shakers and operate Christmas tree netters after a sale. He’ll have about 3,500 Christmas trees for sale this year.
Knight is president of the Oklahoma Christmas Tree Association. Membership has fallen from 136 members and 43 selling farms in 1992 to 22 members and 19 farms that will sell this year, administrative secretary Shelly Collins said.
Members have dwindled primarily due to growers “aging out” and crop failures, especially through droughts.
Despite the perils of Christmas tree growing, Knight welcomes newcomers to the business. The association weans beginners into the learning process and shares how to cut their odds of losses.
He figures the market could bear two or three more operations.
“I ought to have my head examined for being in it, but I’m in it for life,” Knight said. “It’s hard work, but I can’t wait to get out of that house in the morning, and I can hardly stand to go back in at night.”
Four Reasons To Get Real
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
It seems odd to be killing a tree to save one, but that empty spot of dirt quickly fills with a seedling. Better yet, buy a tree with the root ball intact and plant it on your own property after the holidays. Just call ahead to see who’s selling them.
Unlike their industrial clones, real trees are recyclable and biodegradable. Most central Oklahoma cities will either pick up used trees or let you drop them off.
IT'S THE ECONOMY RUDOLPH
Christmas tree farming is rough. Help out an Oklahoma farmer who endured all the years and trouble it takes to bring you a real Christmas experience. The farms are mostly family affairs, rounding up nephews, nieces and cousins for some Christmas dough during the selling season. Locally grown means better prices and profits that stay here.
SCENTS OF THE SEASON
Certain real trees infuse a home with one of the classic Christmas memories: the crisp smell of pine. You’ll get it with any pine variety, including Scotch, Virginia and loblolly.
But be sure to sniff around for more nuances. Grand firs are said to conjure oranges or a citrus-y evergreen. Fraser firs spread hints of balsam. Blue spruces look stunning, but crushing the needles releases a pungent smell. Trees with the least aroma include the Leyland cypress and white pine.
For artificial tree holdouts, the following routine will not become a fond family tale enjoyed around the fireplace: 1. Schlep bulky cardboard box to living room. 2. Extract artificial tree sections. 3. Cram together. 4. Straighten endless number of wire branches. 5. Watch in horror as fingers spontaneously curl into claws. 6. Swear profusely.
Pickin’, Haulin’ and Raisin’
The best thing about picking live trees is the adventure. So make a holiday of it!
Scan the top Oklahoma Christmas tree website, okchristmastrees.com, to get a general sense of each farm experience – but you always need to verify a farm’s offerings with a call. It can be a long drive back if you don’t find what you want.
Oklahoma’s recent droughts may have limited a given farm’s live-tree stock, while other growers have plenty. Even with a low stock, farms also sell stunning pre-cut trees that don’t grow well here, such as Noble, Fraser and grand firs.
Nearly all the farms offer amenities and/or activities on the side. Free hot chocolate is almost a given. Others supply free candy canes, cookies and more.
Tree-related products are usually for sale, including wreaths, garlands and tree stands. Some farms have gift shops for ornaments and holiday décor. One operation will even take you to fields in a tractor and wagon.
Before you go, consider what you’ll need to haul the tree back home. Some farms will secure the tree to your ride for free. Measuring the height of your Christmas tree room pays off, too.
» Freshness should not be a problem with live trees. With pre-cut or live trees, though, you can run a branch through your cupped hand. If a lot of needles fall, it’s too dry. Branches should bend, not snap.
» Growers will make a fresh cut on the end of the live tree if the initial cut isn’t even. They drill a hole in the bottom to help it stand on the spike of the live-tree stand.
» A freshly cut tree can still draw water through its trunk. The trick is to stop sap and air from sealing off the bottom. Put it in warm tap water when you arrive home, then always keep it watered. A tree can gulp a gallon or more a day.
» If the weather is particularly cold, some growers advise setting up the watered tree in the garage overnight for acclimation before moving it indoors.
» For other tips and hints, trust the National Christmas Tree Growers Association at realchristmastrees.org. They’ve tested all the tricks and busted the myths.
Finding Your Tree
These central Oklahoma farms have a green light for live trees this year. For more detailed information about state growers, visit okchristmastrees.com.
Sorghum Mill Christmas Tree and Blackberry Farm
7121 Midwest Ln., Edmond, 340.5488
Open through December 23 – weekdays 1-7pm; weekends 10am-7pm
Coffee Creek Christmas Tree Farm
(small selection of live; mostly pre-cut)
13899 E. Coffee Creek Rd., Arcadia, 396.2282 or 201.3555
Open through mid-December – weekdays noon-6pm; weekends 10am-6pm.
Goddard Tree Farm
5209 E. Robinson St., Norman, 364.0320
Open weekends until December 16 – Saturday 9am-dusk; Sundays 1pm-dusk
Four Daughters Tree Farm
4614 Churchill Downs Dr., Norman, 329.7152
Open until sold out – weekdays by appointment; Saturday 10am-5pm; Sunday 1-5pm
Canadian ValleyChristmas Tree Farm
Three miles southeast of Noble on U.S. 77. Look for the sign. 872.8255
Open until December 16 – weekends 9am-dusk; weekdays 1pm-dusk.
W6 Pines Christmas Tree Farm
15600 Kent Dr., Choctaw, 390.8635
Open through December 24 – weekdays 3-6pm; Saturdays 9am-6pm; Sundays 1-4pm
Martinbird Tree Farm
513 Ridgewood Dr., Tuttle, 381.2910
Open through December 24 – seven days a week 9am-5pm
All Pine Products
2205 S. Mustang Rd., Yukon, 324.1010
Open through December 24 – weekdays 3-6pm; weekends 10am-6pm