By Dennis Seid
So do you like your Christmas trees real or artificial?
By “real,” we’re talking about live trees – or recently cut trees, anyway, that once were firmly rooted in the ground, as opposed to the artificial trees found inside a box in a big-box store.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, folks who put up trees during Christmas choose real ones nearly two to one over what the organization calls “fake” trees. In 2014, the most recent figures available, Americans bought more than 26 million real trees, compared to 13.9 million artificial ones.
In dollar figures, we spent just over $1 billion on the live trees and nearly $1.2 billion on the not-so-live ones.
Worthey Tree Farm is one of a few in Mississippi, and one of only two in the northeast part of the state, doing its part to keep a tradition going.
For about four weeks – from mid-November to mid-December – Lowell Worthey and his family open their farm to thousands of visitors to select their trees for the holiday.
Worthey has plenty of them, too.
On about 14 acres are some 5,000 trees, mostly Leyland cypress, Murray cypress and Blue Ice varieties. And Worthey’s family takes care of each and every one of them because one day, the trees will end up in a home or office.
Worthey’s Tree Farm opened five years ago, a year after the nearby Gray’s Christmas Farm closed following the retirement of its owners.
Lowell Worthey was more than willing to take the mantle and continue the tradition.
“I worked at Gray’s tree farm, starting when I was 14 or 15,” said Lowell, now 44. “We think the world of them, and once they decided to retire, we decided to take over. They’ve been like a mentor to us, helping along when we first planted.”
Getting into the Christmas tree-growing business takes patience and hard work.
Worthey planted his first trees in 2007, four years before having a single customer.
“We planted them and grew them for that time, trimming them and watering them the whole time. There’s a lot of prep work involved. … you just don’t plant trees and say you’re going to sell them.”
There’s also fertilizing and watering. During the spring, the work isn’t that bad. During summer, when the heat and humidity are unbearable, the work still has to be done.
For 10 months of the year, after work and after church, Worthey and his family are tending their trees. They take January off before getting ready to start the process over in February. Then it’s non-stop until the end of the year.
But there’s pretty reliable help around, too.
“It’s definitely a family business – my wife, Linda, helps, as do our two children, Carter and Alaina, who grew up in it, too. They work in the summer and throughout the season.”
Tag, Cut and Frock
Like other tree farms, there’s a process for customers in picking out a tree.
Typically, a week before Thanksgiving, customers go to the farm and select a tree. It’s called “tagging,” because the customer’s name is written on a tag, which also has the height and price of the tree. The tag is tied to the tree for customers to return and get them.
After tagging a tree, customers come back after Thanksgiving to either cut the trees themselves or let someone from the farm do it.
The trees can be placed on a stand if the customers desire, and the trees also can be “flocked.”
Flocking a tree means putting artificial snow on it. Many nurseries use Christmas tree flocking made from cellulose or cotton fibers, water, spray adhesive and, in many cases, a fire retardant. It comes in a variety of colors, and often has a sparkly material, like mica or glitter, mixed in to give it a more snow-like appearance.
But the farm has more than trees for sale. At Worthey’s, there’s also a gift shop with handmade wreaths and garlands, along with Christmas accessories and collectibles. There’s a concession stand with hot chocolate and coffee.
And there are miniature horses, giant inflatables and sleigh rides (pulled by a tractor, not the horses) for the kids, big and small.
And while the Leyland Cypress and Blue Ice trees are the top sellers, Worthey also gets a shipment of fresh-cut Douglas firs from North Carolina.
“We want people to come out and have a great family experience, back like they used to,” Lowell Worthey said. “It’s a fun day with no stress, just having a good time.”
More Trees Needed
Only about three acres at a time are opened up for sale each year, giving time for the trees in other fields to grow.
That still leaves about 1,000 trees for sale during the prime selling time.
Typically, most of the trees are sold.
“We have nearly 5,000 trees in different stages, and every year have to plan,” Worthey said. “You can’t just get more right away, you have to plan, then wait for them to grow. Business has been really good, and we’re trying to add more trees.”
By the way, the trees start at $30 for a 6-foot tree, $40 for a 7-footer, $50 for an 8-footer.
“We try to keep everything below $70,” he said.
At Worthey’s, trees between 7 and 9 feet are the best-sellers.
There’s also a demand for 12-foot trees and taller, but they’re rare commodities.
“When we first started, we had a lot of 11- and 12-foot trees, but now we can’t grow them fast enough to save them. We try to put more back. We have several at 10 feet, a few at 11 and maybe a 12, but not many.”
Because so many trees are sold each year, taller trees are harder to get.
The trees are sheared and shaped twice a year, and also get “painted” to get a deeper shade of green on them.
By the time late November rolls around, Worthey explained, even evergreens show a little discoloration, usually because a frost or two has happened. But the trees get more than a coat of color – they also get a mix of fertilizer and a protective coat.
And all 5,000 trees get the same treatment.
“It is a lot of work,” Worthey said. “You’ve got to have people to do the work, enough land to work with, and, you have to have the want-to, the knowledge it takes. This is not a corn crop. You have to plan far ahead. … and it’s a gamble every day. There might be a lack of rain, like we’ve had lately, or you might have too much. You never know.
But, he said, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s all worth it. You see kids playing, the sleigh running, you get up every day and people have this tradition now and bring them to the farm. They come the same time very year. They bring their children and then they, in turn, bring their children. It’s just a fun business. I’m 44 and now the kids I used to see come to Gray’s, they’re bringing their kids and grandkids here.”