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December 16, 2010   Email to Friend 

NO TIME LIKE CHRISTMAS
Darryal Ray

Right, Schwerman and Santa take a stroll through the farm's 15,000 Christmas trees.
He flies airplanes, gliders, blimps and hot air balloons. He's been an interior designer, environmental engineer and employee of the Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency.

"If it's not fun, I don't do it," says Dr. Roger Schwerman. "I get bored very easily. You might say that's my problem, my curse."

But it's also what spurred Schwerman to buy a 70-acre Christmas tree farm more than eight years ago when all he needed was two acres for his two polo ponies.

"I figured this would give me a place to play and enjoy," he recalled. "I told myself, 'I grew up on a farm. I can figure this out. Plus, I know a little bit about trees.' So, I just decided to do the whole thing."

The "whole thing" is now known as Schwerman Christmas Tree Plantation, just off U.S. 231 in the Lacey's Spring area of Morgan County.

It's a full-fledged Christmas tree farm, a place where Santa Claus shows up with Donner and Blitzen every weekend after Thanksgiving, where a Nigerian dwarf billy goat named Leroy serves as the "Reindeer in Training" and two donkeys named Festus and Marshall Dillon bray at the scores of visitors who come in search of just the right tree.

It's also where the thrill-seeking Schwerman gets his kicks out of Christmas. "What I like most about the Christmas tree farm is the joy you see on the little kids' faces each season," he says. "There is always something new happening on the farm."

He has 15,000 trees from which to choose -- white pines, Virginia pines, Leyland cypress, Carolina sapphires, Blue Ice, Eastern red cedar and Murray cypress to name but a few. He's sold trees almost as far north as Memphis and as far south as Tallahassee, Fla.

"As I said, I'm always curious. So, yes, I'm always looking for new trees," said Schwerman. "There's one that I was reading about in a Christmas tree magazine the other day and it sounded really intriguing. So I'm going to see if I can find some of those. I always start with 50 or 100 and if they do well, I can plant more." On the average, he'll sell about 2,000 trees this Christmas -- a far cry from the 50,000-100,000 trees this farm cranked out in the 1970s when Dr. George Brown (who Schwerman calls "father of the Christmas tree industry in Alabama") from Alabama A&M owned the place and before the industry became so saturated.

When Schwerman bought the farm from Brown, the only trees growing were Virginia pine, white pine and 50 Leyland cypress trees. "George said that nobody ever bought the Leyland cypress, but they were big, nice trees. So I shaped them, and George was right -- nobody wanted them," he said. "I talked a friend into buying one, which left me with 49 that didn't sell. Well, that fall, guess what? Southern Living ran an article that said the Leyland cypress is the tree that the 'true Southern belle' has in her home at Christmastime. Do you know that Friday after Thanksgiving, we sold 48 Leyland cypress trees! We only had one left. So, on Saturday, everybody comes out wanting a Leyland cypress. So I ask them, 'Why would you want a Leyland cypress? Last year I couldn't give them away!'" He puts the knowledge learned from his environmental engineering studies to use in maintaining his trees, using herbicide only as a spot treatment and releasing beneficial insects like wasps and praying mantises to keep down flies and bag worms.

"I'm still learning," Schwerman admits. "George and Webb Thornhill and Paul Beavers (fellow tree farmers in Pisgah and Birmingham, respectively) still provide me with guidance. It's like all the tree farmers I know -- we all do other things, but this is our passion."

That's why he'll be open on Christmas Eve. "There's always somebody who's forgotten to get a tree," he says. "I sell tradition," Schwerman added. "You can go pick a tree up in the grocery store, but the difference is mine are alive. When you look at a green Christmas tree and it's rainy and cold or snowing, it symbolizes that there is going to be new growth in the spring. It's a great thing. I know when I first bought the tree farm, we had lost several family members in December -- December is a tough time for us -- and we were standing up there on the porch when Santa Claus and his reindeer got here. And there was this little boy who'd gone inside our Christmas tree store with his parents, and when he came walking out and saw Santa Claus and his reindeer, his face just lit up! My son reached over and put his arm around me and said, 'Dad, thanks for bringing Christmas back.' So I don't care if I make a buck on this place or not. It was worth everything. That's what it's all about. It's the magic of Christmas, the magic of the season."


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