When it comes to decorating for the holiday season, Loudoun residents have the option to support local agri-businesses.
Early winter weekends find hundreds of Loudoun families visiting area Christmas tree farms. On a given weekend parents, children, grandparents and sometimes even pets join to search for a distinctive tree, cut it down and take it home.
Fifteen years ago, there were 60 Christmas tree farms in the county, said tree farmer Louis Nichols of Loudoun Nursery. Today there at just 11, and while it may seem like the business is on the decline, Nichols said demand is higher than ever.
Nichols’ parents started farming Christmas trees in the 1960’s, and he has been growing them for 50 years. Nichols’ business partner Terry Fairfax has been with him 40 years.
Christmas tree farming is a lot of work, Nichols said. It’s an expensive business and farmers don’t see an immediate profit. On average, a tree will have to grow 10 years before it’s tall enough to be sold, he said.
Not only do farmers need the land, have to pay taxes on it and invest in equipment, they also have to be willing to work year round and care for the trees for many years.
Like Nichols, Mark Wolff’s parents also started a Christmas tree farm. They started Snickers Gap Farm in 1981 and his brother, Steven, now owns it. Wolff also attests to the amount of husbandry that goes into Christmas tree farming, particularly during hot summers. Growing trees takes a lot of planning and time, and trees need to be cut and sheered to keep a favorable shape, he said.
A seven foot tree could take 10 to 12 years to grow, Wolff said.
The type of trees a farm will sell usually depends on the type of land. Some trees, like Firs, require well drained soil and are more suited to hillsides. It’s important to plant more trees than projected business because not all trees take to the land and others can succumb to or be disfigured by pests, Nichols said.
“Customers are cruel like that, they only want perfect trees,” Nichols said, jokingly.
Dan Duis of Day Star Farms, said when growing Christmas trees, you have to look out for the three D’s: deer, drought and disease. Without proper rainfall, trees will dry up and die. This past fall has been a dry one, with 6 inches less of rainfall than normal.
Certain trees can be susceptible to diseases like gypsy moss, which if not caught quickly, will spread through the air to other trees. Lastly, deer are attracted to certain types of trees and will eat them or rub their antlers on the trees, breaking branches and sometimes seriously damaging the trees.
Nichols built a fence around his farm in hopes to deter as many deer as possible. “The deer know which tree is most expensive and eat that one first,” he said.
Whereas there used to be a surplus of trees, now locally grown Christmas trees run out quickly. Nichols would like to see more people enter the business to help meet the demand.
As time has gone by, customer’s preferences have also changed. “It used to be if a tree was over eight inches, people would say ‘throw it out because you’re not going to sell it.’ But now they’re building houses differently with taller ceilings so people want bigger trees,” Duis said.
The reward in the industry isn’t necessarily making a large profit. When it comes to money, Nichols just wants his business to be self sustaining. The real reward is growing quality trees and interacting with customers. Likewise, Duis does not look to make a lot of money off his trees. Most of the profit from his farm goes toward mission trips through Shepherd Gate Church in Chantilly, where Duis is the pastor.
With farms like Snickers Gap, Loudoun Nursery and Day Star Farm that have been around more than 30 years, Loudoun County families have bought their trees locally for generations.
“It’s a lot of fun and you get a lot of joy out of it,” Wolff said. “Especially seeing the look on the kid’s faces.”