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December 01, 2004   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
(334) 613-4212
December 01, 2004

Paul and Carolyn Beavers, above, spread holiday cheer as they spread the word about the benefits of real, Alabama Christmas trees.
MONTGOMERY, Ala.-- Families who visit Beavers Christmas Tree Farm in Trafford, Ala., this holiday season may not be surprised by the thousands of lush trees dotting the hillside or even the hot cocoa awaiting them when they return from the fields after making their selection. But they may be intrigued to learn that their homegrown holiday décor is both safe and good for the environment.

That's because Paul and Carolyn Beavers are not only spreading Christmas cheer at their Jefferson County tree farm, they also are helping spread the word about the benefits of real Christmas trees.

"If you buy an artificial tree, it most likely came from China," said Paul "It's made from fossil fuels because plastic is a petroleum-based product. When you have to dispose of it, it goes into a landfill. But real trees are a rotating crop and can be recycled. They are biodegradable, they prevent erosion and they absorb carbon dioxide. I just don't think an artificial tree can compete with one grown in nature."

The Beaverses' enthusiasm about real Christmas trees is not surprising. After all, they not only sell between 1,000 and 1,200 trees a year at their farm, but Paul also is president of the Alabama Christmas Tree Association (ACTA).

Unfortunately, the number of Christmas tree farms in Alabama is on the decline as more and more families opt to purchase either fake trees or none at all. According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), purchases of real trees have dropped dramatically since 1990. In fact, one study showed that, last Christmas, 73 percent of American consumers displayed trees that came from boxes.

That's a shame, said Carolyn, who believes real trees not only are good for the environment, but also help families recapture the magic of the holiday season.

"So much about Christmas now is so commercialized. A real tree brings back some of what many people are missing," she said. "Families like coming here because it reminds them of Christmas when they were growing up. It reminds them of going to their grandparents' farm and cutting a tree. Even the smell of wood burning in the fire barrel reminds them of Christmas in the country."

Perhaps that's why "choose-and-cut" farms like the Beaverses' have survived when larger tree farms in places like North Carolina are struggling. Paul admits, however, that it has not been easy. Alabama farmers have been forced to adapt to the fast-paced, entertainment- driven culture of today.

No longer do tree farmers simply hand customers a saw and collect their money. Most also shake the trees to remove loose needles, package them in netting and load them in their customers' vehicles. Some, like the Beaverses, offer hayrides and tree flocking, while others have petting zoos and even arrange visits by Santa Claus.

Some of the most popular items at Beavers Christmas Tree Farm are Carolyn's handmade wreaths, but customers also rave about the hassle-free tree stands Paul sells. Still, the Beaverses have resisted adding too much glitz to their operation, preferring instead to offer families a wholesome, old-fashioned experience.

"Paul and I are not in this business to make a whole lot of money," said Carolyn. "We don't want the kids to have to stand in line or pay for everything. For the price of the tree, they can experience everything (including free hot chocolate all week and hayrides on the weekends).

Paul, who harvested the first trees from the 28-acre farm in 1995, said he especially enjoys watching the kids grow up as their families return year after year. But the last decade hasn't been all smiles for the Beaverses. In that time, they've also seen many of their fellow tree growers call it quits.

"When I joined the Alabama Christmas Tree Association in 1991, we had 95 or 96 members; now there are fewer than 20," said Paul, who attributes the exodus to a number of factors.

"In the 1980s, Auburn University was really pushing tree farms, and a lot of people got into the business," he said. "But it's a lot of work, and there's not much money in it."

Carolyn--who had the idea of planting trees so she and Paul could work together in their retirement--said managing a Christmas tree farm is a yearround job. Mowing begins in March and continues throughout the fall with Carolyn spending up to five days a week keeping the grass under control. Planting begins in April; the trees are pruned in the summer; and the Beaverses have to spray the trees regularly to control pests and ensure customers don't take any unwanted critters into their homes.

But the rigorous schedule isn't the only reason for the decline in tree farms. Competition from artificial trees as well as huge home-improvement stores has cut into sales. Some farmers also lost money because the Virginia pine, which is one of the species recommended for Alabama's climate, is prone to disease and insect problems.

The Beaverses still grow Virginia pines and white pines, but like many Alabama growers, they believe the future of the Christmas tree industry in the South lies with the Leyland cypress. Unlike its pine cousins, the Leyland has high survivability, and it makes a tall, full tree with scores of branches that are perfect for ornaments.

"Leyland was our best seller last year," Carolyn said. "Once a lady cuts that tree, they come back every year. We took a 12-foot Leyland to the Southern Women's Show in Birmingham, and they had a fit over it."

Leyland cypresses also allay two of the most common concerns people have about real trees: that they are fire hazards and that they aggravate allergies.

According to an Auburn University study, papers stacked beside lamps have a greater chance of catching fire than do properly watered real Christmas trees. In fact, Leyland cypress trees tested in the lab actually had higher moisture contents after 37 days than on the day they were cut. Other Alabama Christmas tree varieties also tested well, dispelling the myth that real trees are a fire hazard. In addition, Paul said Leylands have a mild odor, so they are ideal for allergy sufferers.

The Beavers believe educating consumers about the safety and environmental benefits of real Christmas trees can reverse the downward trend in sales, and they are not alone. This year, the NCTA started a massive marketing campaign funded by producers who contribute 12 cents for every tree they sell. The association also has partnered with Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. to offer discounts on real Christmas trees at participating farms when families present their ticket stub from The Polar Express movie (visit www.christmastree.org for details).

In Alabama, Paul and Carolyn hope an upcoming merger of the ACTA with Christmas tree associations in Mississippi and Louisiana will revitalize their group and give it the strength to offer more educational programs for producers.

Meanwhile, the Beaverses say choose-and-cut farms like theirs will continue to thrive as long as there are families who want to recapture the joy of a traditional, country Christmas.

"There are so few farms now that we have people who will find us on the Internet and travel from as far away as Huntsville, Decatur and Tuscaloosa to cut a tree," Carolyn said. "They come here to enjoy the atmosphere of a good, old-fashioned Christmas. It's refreshing just to be out here, and it's a great way to create a new family tradition."

Beavers Christmas Tree Farm is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. until dark beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving. For information, visit www.beaverschristmastreefarm.com or call (205) 681-4494.

Click Here For A List Of Alabama Christmas Tree Association Members

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