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A growing business
Patrick farm lets residents pick, cut own Christmas trees
Donny Coale of Fairystone carries his Christmas tree to his truck after cutting it recently at Ayers-Kreh Christmas Tree Farm in Patrick County. The tree farm is the only cut-your-own option in this area, according to the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
After 33 years, business still is growing at Ayers-Kreh Christmas Tree Farm.
The Patrick County “choose and cut” tree farm, operated by Barbara Ayers and Richard Kreh, began in 1980 — the planting part, anyway.
“In about seven years, we were selling,” Kreh said. “At that time, all we had were white pines and scotch pines.”
The roster has filled out quite a bit over the years, with the farm now offering Blue and Norway Spruce, Concolor, Mediterranean and Nordmann Fir, Leyland and Blue Ice Cypress, and Carolina Sapphire. The farm also sells wreaths and garlands.
When Ayers and Kreh started the tree farm, they said, one of their goals was to teach their respective children the value and reward of hard work.
“I was determined that the kids would learn how to sweat,” Kreh said.
Before the late 1970s, he said, choose and cut tree farms were fairly uncommon, with most trees sold at lots.
“The industry was really in its infancy in Virginia,” Kreh said. “I was the Christmas tree specialist for Virginia Tech. I worked for Virginia Tech for 33 years in the forestry department. I’ve had to deal with all this stuff, the evolution of the Christmas tree industry.”
In the early years, white pine and scotch pine were the most popular Christmas tree varieties, but tastes have changed over the years. Now, many people prefer exotic trees that are not native to the area.
“The goal is to find the perfect species,” Kreh said. “For a Christmas tree grower, it’s one that will turn out well, will look good and will be easy to grow. They haven’t found that yet. They’re all pretty much difficult to grow, especially non-native species. We can’t duplicate the soils, the weather and so forth, so it’s sometimes a real challenge to grow these exotic species.”
One such species, the Concolor Fir, is native to the Rocky Mountains. When the needles of the fir are crushed, they give off a scent of citrus. According to Kreh, the trees are so popular that it’s difficult to provide enough to meet demand.
“We can’t get one to seven feet,” he said. “As fast as they get to six feet, they’re gone.”
Although some tree farms price their trees individually based on a variety of factors and others charge a flat price for every tree, at Ayers-Kreh, the formula is constant: $5.50 per foot, no matter the species.
The largest tree the farm has sold, Kreh said, likely is a 20-foot-tall Cypress that sold this season.
“It probably weighed 500 pounds,” he said. “It was a big scene (cutting and loading it), like a three-ring circus.”
Generally, he said, the farm sells 500 to 1,000 trees in a season. The sales record is 278 trees in a single day.
The single biggest factor determining sales, both Kreh and Ayers agreed, is the weather. On Saturday, Dec. 7, they sold 138 trees, Kreh said. The next day — an icy Sunday — they sold 13.
“I get a report from a survey group that looks at choose and cut farms nationwide,” Kreh said. “The first weekend after Thanksgiving, sales were up 14 percent compared to last year. The second weekend after Thanksgiving, sales were up 7 percent, and that downturn was mostly due to weather.”
To predict sales, Kreh said, he tries to keep track of local weather.
“I go to about eight forecasts,” he said. “Bing, Accuweather, NOAA … I pick the one that fits my criteria the best. It makes me feel better.”
This year, many media outlets have reported on the spread of a type of “root rot” that could threaten the Christmas tree industry. Kreh was quick to set the record straight.
“The Phytophthora root rot has been around with us forever,” he said. “The news media just got hold of it and has blown it all out of proportion. It is a disease that affects basically Fraser Fir. … When you’re in agriculture, you can’t control all the variables that produce a product, unlike a factory.”
After 33 years, Ayers and Kreh both recognize familiar faces who come to the farm year after year to pick out the right Christmas tree.
Kreh spoke of a couple who drive from Atlanta to Stuart each year just to pick out a Christmas tree. Ayers recalled two sisters who visited the farm regularly when they were little girls; now, they have families of their own that they bring to the farm.
For many, the tree farm has become a holiday institution.
“(Customers) stand around sometimes and fuss over who’s been coming longer,” Kreh said.
Ayers-Kreh Christmas Tree Farm is at 1531 Ayers Orchard Road, Stuart, and is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Saturday. The farm can be reached at 692-7326 or 694-3072. It is affiliated with the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association, which is online at www.virginiachristmastrees.org.