Picture This, December 2013 — Taking its boughs

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Taking its boughs

Christmas trees have won it acclaim, but Peak Farms, like many Tar Heel growers, didn’t have to go out on a limb to branch out.

Years ago, Rusty Estes learned that Christmas trees grow on a man. “I was a superintendent at a golf course, and a guy working for me gave me about 200 fir seedlings he had left over. I planted them more or less as a hobby.” That was in 1979. Peak Farms and partner River Ridge Farms now have about a million trees in the ground, from foot-tall seedlings to 24-foot ceiling scrapers. They’re part of what makes Ashe County North Carolina’s Christmas-tree capital, the green patches that, seen from the sky, turn its rugged terrain into a patchwork quilt.

As with many of the 1,600 such farms in the state, Peak expanded a few trees at a time. By 1993, it had outgrown its acreage in Avery County. Second homes had increased land prices there, so Estes, who had given up his job at Grandfather Golf and Country Club, moved two counties north. “We were getting about $3,800 an acre for land there, and land here was $1,000 an acre. Oddly, we sold our house and 25 acres there and got a house and 70 acres here for just about an even swap.”

Near Laurel Springs and named after a nearby mountain, Peak Farms proper has grown to more than 200 acres and, with leased land, has more than 400 acres in trees. Estes, 60, and son Beau, 33, form the heart of the family enterprise, augmented by daughter Katirie, particularly at harvest. Farming Christmas trees is a slow, steady business punctuated by a frantic seasonal rush. “People think you plant them and then come back a couple of years later and cut them,” Estes says. Not so.

The Fraser fir seedlings Peak Farms gets from Weyerhaeuser Co. nurseries in Oregon take six to eight years to reach market size, growing about a foot a year. At 50 to 75 cents each, plus labor and equipment costs, it takes about $1 to get a tree in the ground. Fertilizing, weeding, spraying, shaping and harvesting it means Estes will have $8 to $10 invested when an 8- to 10-foot tree reaches market. Wholesale prices have declined 25% or more in recent years because of glutted markets, though sales of artificial trees have steadily dropped since about 2007. Peak Farms will sell about 50,000 this year, more than 90% to wholesale customers such as Mooresville-based Lowe’s Cos. Statewide, growers’ cash receipts total $75 million, second only to Oregon.

Peak Farms employs about 10 people year-round, but the number mushrooms during the late-fall harvest, which, like other aspects of Christmas-tree farming, is entirely by hand.  Using mostly migrant workers rotating from picking summer crops in eastern North Carolina, Peak’s workforce swells to at least 60. Trees are chainsawed, baled to compress and protect their branches and needles and, increasingly, palletized for shipping. “We can’t afford to miss a day,” Estes says. “We’ll work in the rain, but with snow and ice you can’t get out and do anything. We get behind in a hurry.”

In addition to domestic sales, Tar Heel trees are routinely shipped to foreign customers.  “They’ll be put in containers, refrigerated, have ice and water put on them and shipped to places like Venezuela, Argentina and, from the West Coast, Singapore,” Estes says. And Christmas — and the market for trees — keeps coming earlier, now nudging Halloween. “Other wholesale customers such as Scout troops and charitable organizations want trees about Thanksgiving week, but Lowe’s, Walmart, The Home Depot — those types of box stores — keep expanding the season.”

Though Peak Farms didn’t win any export contracts this year, it’s no stranger to awards.  It was selected from farms nationwide to provide the Christmas tree for the White House’s Blue Room in 2008 and again in 2012 — it can compete only every four years — and regularly supplies a 25-foot Fraser fir for the State Capitol lawn in Raleigh. More than 30 years after trading tees for trees, Estes has no regrets. “I decided I liked them more than the golf course.”


— Edward Martin

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