The night air is cool as you turn off the quiet country road, roll down your window and are greeted by a smiling elf. Up ahead thousands of Christmas trees dot the hillside as you wind your way to a cottage that seems to sparkle in the glow of countless lights. Soon, you find yourself rocking peacefully on the porch--a cup of hot cocoa in your hand--while, in the distance, children laugh as they visit Santa Claus and feed his reindeer.
|Pine Hill Farms owner Carlene Walker
fashions a wreath from Christmas tree branches.|
Where is this place? No, it's not the North Pole. This winter wonderland is the creation of Cary and Carlene Walker, owners of Pine Hill Farms in Jefferson County.
"We planted our first Christmas trees in 1988, and it grew very rapidly from a hobby to a business," Cary said. "Today, people come here for an old-fashioned Christmas experience, and we do our dead-level best to serve the customer in any way we can."
The Walkers aren't the only Christmas tree farmers who have diversified their operations to include entertainment-related activities. Auburn University Horticulture Professor and Extension Specialist Dr. Ken Tilt said competition from artificial trees and large retailers is forcing tree growers to rethink their business plans.
"In order to compete, our growers are coupling their Christmas tree operations with other things like growing pumpkins and strawberries, making wreaths and operating gift shops and petting zoos," Tilt said.
Even with these changes, however, artificial trees still account for more than half of all Christmas trees sold in the U.S. As a result, Tilt said membership in the Alabama Christmas Tree Growers Association is about a third of what it was just 15 years ago.
Fortunately, there are still growers like the Walkers who open the gates to their farms each year so families can share in the excitement of selecting a fresh, real Christmas tree. And at Pine Hill Farms, the Walkers have trees to suit just about any taste.
At any given time, the Walkers will have between 6,000 and 7,000 trees growing on the 15-acre farm where Cary has lived since he was an infant. Each year, they tag about 700-800 trees for harvest, including some containerized trees, which buyers can plant after the holidays. Species include several varieties of Leyland and Arizona cypress as well as Murray cypress, Dedora cedar, Burki cedar and Virginia pine.
Customers can choose and cut their own tree, buy a potted tree or have one of the Pine Hill Farms employees cut the tree for them. The Walkers also sell about 1,200 Fraser fir trees each year, which they purchase from growers in North Carolina.
"We resisted at first, but we were missing so many sales because that was what the customers wanted," Cary said. "Fraser firs only grow well in areas where the elevation is at least 2,500 feet above sea level. We finally decided that our goal is to get people to come here for an old-fashioned Christmas experience, whether they cut one of our trees or buy a Fraser."
Ironically, when the Walkers started shipping trees in from out of state, a new business opportunity soon sprouted from the trunks of the Fraser firs. Using branches, which are trimmed from the bottoms of trees when they are sold, Carlene began making wreaths. Today, she and a handful of girls from Tarrant High School--where she teaches art--make about 250 wreaths a year.
Carlene and the Walkers' daughter, Beth Bowers, also operate The Christmas Shoppe, which features three large rooms filled to the brim with unique ornaments, toys and high-end Christmas décor. The Walkers sell easy-to-use tree stands and a handy watering device that takes the guesswork out of Christmas tree care.
In addition, Beth coordinates school tours during the week. The tours include a wagon ride, stops at the reindeer barn and gift shop, hot cocoa, cookies, a Christmas story and an optional craft. Last Christmas season, 2,500 school children visited Pine Hill Farms.
Meanwhile, Cary and son-in-law Greg Bowers continue to look for new ways to add value to their Christmas trees. One of the newest services they offer is flocking. Using a specialized machine, they can quickly transform a lush green cypress into a snowy masterpiece. The flocking is flame retardant and acts as a sealant, which will help preserve the tree throughout the holiday season.
The Walkers clean, shake, bale and load every tree that leaves their farm, and they will deliver and setup trees within the Birmingham metropolitan area. This year, Cary even plans to sell some trees that will be flocked and decorated with hundreds of twinkle lights.
For most customers, however, it's the little things the Walkers do that make buying a tree from Pine Hill Farms a joyful experience. Some like sipping complimentary coffee and hot cocoa on the porch; some prefer riding around the farm on the tractor-pulled wagon; and still others enjoy taking the kids to see Santa Claus (weekends only) and his three live reindeer--which were scheduled to arrive at Pine Hill Farms the week before Thanksgiving.
Whatever their customers' reasons for visiting the farm, the Walkers say you won't be disappointed.
"Our farm is really entertainment," Cary said. "People come here to be among nature. They come to walk around the farm. They want the experience of an old-fashioned Christmas, and that's what we try to give them."
Pine Hill Farms, located in the Tarrant city limits, opened for business Nov. 20. For more information, call (205) 841-6766 or visit the farm website at www.pinehillfarms.com. To find a Christmas tree grower near you, visit www.realchristmastrees.org.