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Pining for the Perfect Tree

This Year, Choose and Cut Your Own
Written by Beverly Burmeier. Photographs by Michael Amador.

At Evergreen Farms, Bret Humphrey shoulders the load while his daughter Taryn pro­vides canopy support.

The steady stream of cars rumbling toward us, Christmas trees lapping over the roofs and kids’ hands waving out the windows, hints of the frenetic activity ahead. My husband, Larry, and I have just turned off US 290, east of Elgin, onto Roy Davis Road on a trip to the Elgin Christmas Tree Farm.

After a few more twists and turns, we arrive at the farm’s full parking lot, where customers load up and tie down their mesh-encased greenery. Beyond them, on the main grounds, children jump and tumble on haystacks.

It’s definitely family time: Moms hold infants in cloth carriers; dads balance tots on their shoulders. A small pen holds llamas, goats, and other barnyard animals, which gently pry bits of hay from little hands. Nearby, older kids pump water through a series of PVC half-pipes into a large tub, where bright-yellow rubber ducks bob merrily.

The scent of grilling sausage, which wafts from a smoker near the gift shop, might be tempting had we not just had sausage for lunch at Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse on the way. A stroll inside the Christmas Cottage—a refurbished, 75-year-old, green clapboard house moved here from Austin—reveals decorations, tree skirts, seasonal jewelry, nativity sets, and other items for sale.

It’s the first Saturday in December, the farm’s busiest day of the season, and the crowds are here to choose and cut their own Texas-grown Christmas trees. The other activities are just icing on the cake.

Visitors at the Elgin Christmas Tree Farm take a hayride out to the tree fields. Compared with trees that are trucked in from  distant locales, trees cut in Texas stay greener throughout the season.Dozens of teenagers, clad in red shirts and orange gloves, hustle into action when a trailer loaded with trees arrives. We stay out of the way while they unload trees and put them in a shaker machine to get rid of loose needles, abandoned birds’ nests, and other debris hidden within the branches. Next, they wrap mesh around the trees and set them in the claim area. After watching this beehive of ac­tivity, we hop on a trailer outfitted with hay bales and ride along bumpy paths to the Christmas-tree fields.

Ted and Sarah Lopez of Austin tell us they’re here on their second visit, starting a tradition with their baby daughter, Jaelyn. That’s a common refrain. Once families have cut their own special tree, they look forward to returning and repeating the experience. Take Bill and Kathy Robbins. They have been coming to the farm from northwest Austin with their three children for more than a decade. “The Christmas season starts when we make the trip to Elgin,” says Bill. “We love the whole experience of driving to the country and getting on a trailer to ride into the fields filled with trees—listening to Christmas music in the background. Now that the kids are older [ages 11, 13, and 16], they take turns picking out the tree and helping cut and load it.”

At the fields, we meander through neat rows of beautiful trees, breathing in the zesty pine scent. Families discuss the merits of different trees—this one’s too tall, that one’s not tall enough, that one’s great, but it will never fit through the doorway. We watch Paige Pastrana, an 11-year-old from Austin, brace herself on the ground to saw the trunk of her chosen tree. Her father, Steve, tells us, “We had so much fun last year, we wanted to come back.”

The crowds are here to choose and cut their own Texas-grown Christmas trees. The other activities—trailer rides, games, a petting zoo—are just icing on the cake.

Marc and Twyla Nash bought the Elgin Christmas Tree Farm in 2002 from Twyla’s parents, Bill and Kaye Walton, who planted the first trees in 1984. The Nashes have expanded the farm into a year-round agritourism business. They created a park-like atmosphere that attracts people from surrounding cities in October for Halloween and harvest festivities, and in November and December for tree-cutting. “We want families to come out and enjoy each other,” says Twyla. “December is about Christmas trees, but we offer a lot of other fun activities, too, at no charge.”

With 35,000 trees in the ground, the Nash farm is among the largest Christmas tree farms in the state. The majority of the trees here are Virginia pine and Ley­land cypress; the latter is popular because it doesn’t seem to bother people with allergies.

Choose-and-cut farms require year-round work. In late Jan­uary, the Nashes plant 6,000 to 9,000 seedlings. Over a period of four to five months, Marc trims the handle (the part that goes in the stand) of each young tree and pulls up stumps from the previous season’s harvest. Shaping, a process that takes about six weeks—and lots of muscle—involves using two different me­chan­­ical trimmers on each tree—one for the bottoms and tops, and another for the bodies. Each year the Nashes designate six to eight acres of trees for harvest.

Their efforts have paid off: The Elgin Christmas Tree Farm has received the Grand Champion Tree award five times at the annual Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association convention. But the best reward, says Twyla, is sharing the excitement when visitors select their very own tree.

See related: Christmas Tree Farms: A Texas Sampler

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