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Pining for the Perfect Tree

'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'

At Evergreen Farms, Bret Humphrey shoulders the load while his daughter Taryn provides canopy support. (Photo by Michael Amador)By Beverly Burmeier

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 that 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.

altThe 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.

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, they take turns picking out the tree and helping cut and load it.”

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.

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.

Harvesting a Texas Tradition

For many Texas families, going to a local farm and cutting their own Christmas tree has become their way of kicking off the holidays. They make a day of it, posing for pictures and enjoying a range of activities, from riding on an antique tractor to roasting marshmallows over a campfire. Not only do they take home a fresh, beautiful tree, but often lasting memories, to boot.

Mike Walterscheidt, executive secretary of the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association, and
co-owner of Evergreen Farms Christmas Trees, near Elgin, says there are 110 farms scattered across the state, except for the Panhandle, Big Bend, and South Texas regions. The farms produce one or more of six species, depending on their location and soil composition: Virginia pine, loblolly pine, Afghan pine, Leyland cypress, Eastern red cedar, and Carolina sapphire (a cultivar of Arizona cypress). Virginia pine is by far the most common species grown, except in West Texas, where Afghan pines flourish in the alkaline soils.

 “Christmas tree farms add $12 million to our economy annually, thanks to the sale of some 200,000 trees, plus wreaths, decorations, and other gift-shop items,” says Walterscheidt, a retired Texas A&M forestry professor. Walterscheidt says the majority of people who opt to cut their own trees do so “because it’s fun.” He and his wife, Beth, established Evergreen Farms in 1989. The site offers a daily slate of family-oriented activities, beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving and continuing through Christmas Eve: wagon rides; a nature trail; games (tetherball, hop--
-scotch, beanbag toss, and horseshoes); and browsing in an expansive gift shop that features handcrafted ornaments On weekends, they keep a campfire burning and provide complimentary marshmallows, cider, and coffee.

“Each farm does things a little differently,” says Walterscheidt. “What we all have in common is a focus on family fun.”  

—Beverly Burmeier and Nola McKey

Get a Tree, Do a Good Deed

The Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve rises above the surrounding West Texas desert. “Sky islands” within the preserve form cooler and wetter areas covered in pinion- juniper woodlands. Every December for the past 10 years, the preserve has opened its gates on select dates (Dec. 5 and Dec. 12 this year) so families can cut one of these sturdy trees for Christmas.

Participants can enjoy an entire day at the scenic site, which offers hiking trails, great birding, and picnic areas. By taking home a tree, they also help protect a special piece of Texas, says The Nature Conservancy’s John Karges. Historically, he explains, this ecosystem contained roughly 30 trees per acre along with wildflowers and grasses. Slow-moving, low-intensity natural fires maintained that arrangement, clearing out the underbrush and most tree seedlings. After decades without such fires, though, thousands of trees now fill each acre. Efforts to restore the savannah include prescribed fire and mechanical thinning, which is where the Christmas-tree hunts come in. The events provide an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of conservation, and are lots of fun.

 For more information on the 2009 hunts, call 432/302-0550; www.nature.org/texas (go to Events).              

—Melissa Gaskill

From the December 2009 issue.

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