Story by Dianne Edwards
Remember the days when the search for the annual Christmas tree did NOT mean uncovering the box in which its artificial branches could be found and reassembled year after year?
On a hill off Highway 7 South of Dardanelle stands a grove of REAL Christmas trees – Virginia Pine and a variety of Leyland Cypress – eagerly awaiting their place in your family’s home this holiday season. Not in a cardboard box from China, not cut weeks before and found on a corner lot or retail store, but home grown in Yell County. Cut fresh by the growers, just moments after being found and chosen by a family who will haul it home to a place of honor throughout the season.
It is a well-documented fact that fragrance triggers the memory and which of us cannot recall the aromatic, magical smell of real Christmas trees of years past? Sadly, the fragrance of Christmas most individuals experience now is usually provided by a spray can, potpourri or artificially scented-candle.
But, for only a few dollars a foot, the real aroma of Christmas can once again fill your home. Terry and Johnnie Sue Christy of Dardanelle, along with their sons Brent and Tyler, began their Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm seven years ago with the planting of 1,200 Virginia Pine trees.
The idea to begin Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm came after a conversation with Terry’s boss. He had recently relocated to the River Valley from Iowa and approached Terry, asking where he could find a live Christmas tree. Realizing there was not a local farm and knowing his Yell County land provided the proper acreage, Terry joined the Arkansas Christmas Tree Growers Association to learn more. He currently serves as president of the 35-member group.
Terry, who works full-time at ConAgra in Russellville, said the endeavor took about two years to complete as each seedling is hand-planted using a dribble bar. The shovel- like implement is inserted into the ground and “wiggled around” to make the appropriate hole for planting.
New trees are given additional water as needed for the first few years to insure a proper start. A low-pressure drip irrigation system is needed when there is a shortage of rain, unlike this year, Terry laughed.
The trees must grow for four to five years to achieve proper cutting height, said Terry. The Virginia Pine, the trees first planted by the family, takes the longest to mature. Several years ago Terry began adding the Leyland Cypress which have a different look and mature in about four years.
The 28-acre plot has been owned by members of their family for generations. Approximately 10-12 acres, used previously as hay fields, now contain approximately 3,000 Christmas trees of
varying ages. The trees begin as 12-18” seedlings and grow to a height of 13-14 feet. An average tree of 11 feet takes about seven years to mature, explained Terry.
The soil on the Christy farm varies from a clay-base to a sandy- base so the trees grow at varying speeds, with those in the sandy soil growing more quickly, he said. While the Leyland cypress will accept fertilizer applications, the pine do not. Light dressings of herbicide and pesticide are used only when needed. Other upkeep includes mowing regularly between the trees.
Last year’s ice storm was detrimental to the farm, resulting in the loss of over 1,000 trees. To make up for the damage, Terry planted 500 new Virginia Pine and nearly 300 assorted Leyland Cypress this past spring.
Most of the record keeping is in his head, Terry said, though the addition of the Leyland Cypress takes a bit more tracking. He spends about 10 hours a week, several hours a day and more on the weekends, maintaining the trees. During the selling season, the family is gets additional help from a few of son Tyler’s friends.
The trees are priced according to size and grade. For example, a 7-8 foot tree that is nearly perfect (or grade one) usually sells for about $35.
Visiting school children and families of all ages are treated to rides on a hay-filled trailer and offered hot chocolate and candy canes to round out the experience. Searchers include all ages, from young families with small children, grandparents bringing their grandkids, and adults of any age. Roughly 75-80% of the purchasers are repeat customers, said Terry, but “we’ve doubled our sales each year since we began selling the trees in 2006.”
News of Dardanelle’s Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm has been slow to spread, explained Terry. They have advertised a bit, have hosted elementary and school tour groups, and have participated in the Russellville and Dardanelle Christmas parades.
“I especially enjoy watching the children, all wide-eyed and excited when they come here,” added son Brent. Brent is emotionally vested in the family operation but physical involvement is limited due to a car accident two years ago that left him recovering from a broken back.
The family enjoys the visiting children so much that they are considering planting a pumpkin patch next fall.
The Christys have been asked if buyers could return their tree after usage, and in some cases, Terry has accepted a few. He suggests, instead, the donation of used trees to the Arkansas State Parks to be placed in the lake and used as fish beds – minus the decorations, of course!