Steven Mannhard was stretched pretty thin. Between teaching English and working as a captain in the Army Reserve, he decided to open a Christmas tree farm in Baldwin County. With no machinery and 7,000 seedlings, Mannhard got to work on land he rented in Summerdale for $50. It became the Fish River Christmas Tree Farm.
“We had no earthly idea the work that was involved in those 7,000 seedlings and the next 7,000,” he said. “We just thought we’d grow these trees. We had no idea what we were doing.”
The amount of work caught up with the Foley High School English teacher when a colonel in the reserve caught him grading papers at the facility.
“So, eventually, because of the amount of work involved in it, something had to go,” he said. “Then when you’re working two and a half jobs you’re not doing a good enough job at any of them … I always miss the teaching.”
Mannhard has managed to grow the successful business at the “choose and cut” farm — now in its 37th year — despite others’ past failures.
“There are very few in the state,” he said. “We used to have hundreds; now we’re down to 10, maybe 15 really serious growers. There used to be 30 in Baldwin County at one time and another 30 in Mobile County.”
One issue with the decline in tree farming is the seemingly surprising amount of work that goes into a product almost entirely consumed within a month or so. For instance, in the South, tree farming is a year-round job, Mannhard said. Up north, he said, there’s a little bit of a lull between January and April.
“Here, already by February and March, everything starts growing already,” Mannhard said. “So you’re dealing with all these issues with herbicide and pesticides even by March. By April you’re mowing and trimming and everything.”
The high number of farms decades ago also hurt demand for live trees, said Ray Gilbert, president of the Southern Christmas Tree Association. The higher demand now has been a good thing for the farms that are still open.
“It seems to be a good year for farms,” Gilbert said.
Some farms in Alabama operate other amenities during the offseason, such as hayrides or pumpkin patches to keep customers engaged even when they’re not buying trees. Such is the case for Gilbert’s farm in Lanett.
“Some tree farms have something else for customers,” he said. “The customer wants to be entertained. That’s the reason pumpkin patches do so well.”
A high demand for trees such as Douglas or Fraser firs, which don’t grow this far South, has also hurt the market.
A customer at Mannhard’s farm asked specifically about a Douglas fir after pulling up. That’s why both Gilbert and Mannhard have pre-cut fir trees for sale in addition to “choose and cut” trees.
“Any business that has any sense is going to provide them what they want instead of sending them to Home Depot,” Mannhard said. “So, we have to ship in a lot of trees.”
It’s strange to have a job with two very distinct operations, Mannhard said. Most of the time it’s simply a farm, but from November until the end of December it’s a customer service job.
“To me the most unique part of the Christmas tree business is that it’s farming for eleven months,” Mannhard said. “In November and December, you suddenly have to make this major flip from a wholesale farming operation to a retail outlet.”
In the last two months of the year, Mannhard said he hires up to 25 seasonal employees before getting back to the farming aspect.
It’s a nice change of pace,” he said. “I like it. Once we’re finished I like going back to the peace and quiet of farming.”
The Baldwin County farm and Lanett farm each grow several varieties of cypress trees, trimmed to look like more traditional Christmas trees. Mannhard said there is a mix of Leyland, Carolina Sapphire and Murray cypress trees. Much of the trimming of the farm’s roughly 20,000 trees is still done by hand, Mannhard said.
“They take a lot of hand work, which is the most unique part of this work, as opposed to the cotton or the guy planting corn and so forth,” he said. “It’s very hands-on, because each tree has to be hand trimmed even if you’re using a bit of a machine; you’re still operating it by hand. That hands-on can be as many as three, four, five touches per year times 20,000.”
Once planted, the trees grow for two to three years before they are cut down by families and made into Christmas trees. The farm sells about 5,000 trees per year to a mostly local customer base.
“We have some people who travel long distances, even [from] Louisiana, but they’re unique,” Mannhard said. “It’s mostly Pensacola, Mobile and mainly Baldwin County. We’re getting more and more customers from Pensacola and Mobile, which is a really good thing.”
Mannhard said he also does solid business from containerized Christmas trees customers can plant after the holiday. Mannhard had the idea to sell the potted trees after a number of customers asked if they could dig up the trees on the farm instead of cutting them down.
“I realized there was a market down here for evergreens to be planted, because there are not too many that grow here naturally,” he said. “It took five or so years to get on a system of growing them because it was kind of complicated in a lot of ways. Now we have it down pretty well and the repeat business for containerized trees is pretty good …”
Customers who purchase a potted tree usually buy one the next year, once they’ve had success growing one on their own, Mannhard said.
It takes two to three years for trees planted at the farm to mature to the point they can be cut down and sold, Mannhard said. This is especially true of the containerized trees.
“The first year they’re a baby, and then we put them in these fifteen-gallon containers and grow them a couple of years in there,” Mannhard said. They’re very fast growing because we kind of push them. They are getting the exact water they need and fertilizer they need and they’re not having to withstand some of the other environmental issues.”
Trees on the farm can reach 14, 15 or even 16 feet tall, Mannhard said, but those are almost impossible to sell.
“We do sell a lot of trees in the nine and ten, eleven-foot range. Ten is a pretty popular range for people’s homes now because they have the elevated ceilings,” he said.
Smaller trees, such as the 7- and 8-foot varieties, are also very popular. But the demand for these smaller trees can cause an issue.
“So much so we have a hard time with certain species keeping enough of them because they cut down all the sevens and eights and then you don’t have the nines, tens or elevens the following years,” Mannhard said.
Gauging the amount of demand is very important because too many trees can cause problems in future years, he said.
It’s hard to know exactly how many of each species because if you plant too many, like if you plant 500 too many then you might end up with 500 of these monster trees we just talked about,” Mannhard said. “There’s no market for them. So, it’s kind of a guessing game, to some extent, where the market goes for different species.”
Real trees vs. artificial trees
A sign outside the main sales building at Mannhard’s farm details several of the ways a real tree could be considered better than a manufactured tree. For one, a real tree is almost always a product of the United States or Canada, while an artificial tree is made in a factory elsewhere. Real trees are lead free and recyclable, while the others are not.
Michael Buchart, executive secretary of the Southern Christmas Tree Association, said the main reason a real tree is better than a fake tree is the experience.
“We’re providing a form of entertainment,” he said. “When you go to a farm and purchase a tree, you’ll spend a couple of hours. A lot of people have fun picking out a tree.”
Mannhard said it can become a great family activity.
“I think these kinds of things are more and more important,” he said. “I see when they come how much fun the children have here and how important that family bonding is for doing activities like this.”
Purchasing real trees helps the farming economy. It’s also one of the few times customers can witness a real, working farm, Buchart said.
There is also Mannhard’s sense that bringing a real tree into the home evokes a sense in each of us that is hard to pin down. He said it goes back generations to pagan traditions from which Christians later borrowed.
“Somewhere in there — somewhere going back centuries is this desire in the middle of winter to gather from the country greens to bring inside to celebrate new life, and it’s hard to put a handle on that … ,” Mannhard said. “So, at the winter solstice they brought these things in, the Celts and the Germans and so forth. Then Christianity grabbed that tradition and that whole aspect of looking for new life in the spring connected with the birth of Jesus.”
Proper tree care
It’s important that the needles of a Christmas tree retain as much moisture as possible. Mannhard suggested carefully monitoring the temperature of the environment you’re bringing the tree into.
“When they take these trees from 50-degree days and put it in a 75-degree house, automatically the moisture is going to go out those needles,” he said. “So, the cooler the tree is kept inside the house. … That’s why we always talk about no fireplaces, no heating vent, because the heating vents are like hair dryers blowing across the needles and it just takes the moistures right out of those pores.”
A trend has also been to add sugar to water to help a tree while it’s in a stand during Christmas. However, Mannhard said there is no need to add anything to the water in a Christmas tree stand.
“Almost all the research that universities have done show that water is it,” he said. “So, all the aspirins, all the Sprites and all of this stuff, the actual scientific research shows none of it does anything.”
There is also a key to the watering that if not done correctly can hurt the tree and keep it from lasting as long as it needs to.
“The key to the watering — and it’s difficult because the key to it, especially on the trees we grow — not the fir trees as much — is that that first day or two is so important,” Mannhard said. “They need to have a fresh cut, so the wood is nice and fresh on the bottom before they put it in the stand, and then they can’t let the water go below the bottom of the stand. That’s the No. 1 mistake because often the tree will drink a half a gallon to a gallon right in the first day and the water level goes below the bottom, the bottom then hardens off and then the tree doesn’t take anymore water.”