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November 30, 2007   Email to Friend 

FAMILY TREES: Neely Farms Planting Christmas Memories
By Darryal Ray

Neely Farms is a family operation. Front row, from left, are Ginger Duncan with sons Ethan and Chad; back row, Michael Duncan, Chesley Neely, Lacey Neely, and Carl Neely.
Maybe you can blame it on her childhood, or on a visit to a local pumpkin patch. Or maybe it's because family friend George Fontaine was such a smooth talker.

But no matter who gets the credit Ginger Duncan is as giddy as a child on Christmas morning, waiting to open the biggest gift under the tree.

Except her "gift" this year IS the tree -- or more precisely -- almost 1,000 Virginia pines that are part of Neely Farms, the first choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm in Chilton County in about a decade.

Neely Farms, which gets its name from Ginger's father, Chesley Neely of the Chilton County Farmers Federation board, opened its gates to the public for the first time this year.

"I'm excited ... and I'm a little nervous," Ginger, a petite 30-year-old, confessed weeks before the Nov. 23 opening. "We really don't know how many people will show."

All Ginger knew for certain were two things: One, she yearned for a family-oriented business that creates memories; and two, George Fontaine convinced her that if she'd grow a Christmas field of dreams, people would come.

Michael Duncan, Ginger's husband, remembers it like this: "We went to a pumpkin patch, and Ginger was all, 'Oh, I wish we could do something like that! Just look at all these parents and kids! Let's do a Christmas farm.'"

Before you could say "Feliz Navidad," they were off to Baldwin County to visit George and Jean Fontaine, family friends who had been in the Christmas tree business for years.

"George was getting ready to open up to sell his trees and was putting out all of his props, and getting his little train ready," Chesley Neely recounted. "He was telling stories about all the different things the kids did, and he got Ginger all excited about this Christmas tree growing. He told her, 'There's nothing to it, Ginger. Just get 1,000 trees and plant 'em.' ... George is such an enjoyable person. He can make you see it, feel it, like nothing's impossible. You've just got to do it."

Neely, whose farm sits behind Thorsby High School on Dakota Road, is more accustomed to raising brood cows and feeder pigs. Although for years he hosted school kids on field trips, Neely admits he had "never envisioned" his farm sprouting Christmas trees.

But on a freezing cold day in January 2003, the Neely Farms' Christmas tree operation began to take root, literally. Before long, the Neely cattle farm was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

"I had planted trees before out in the woods, but I'd never planted Christmas trees," said Chesley Neely. "The whole family gets out there, and it is cold...it's freezing, and we start off trying to line up the trees and get them spaced. We plant about 200 trees and realize that our idea of how to space them was totally wrong. So we had to pull those 200 up and start over planting again. It took us all day to plant 500, and the next day, we got back out there and planted the other 500."

It wasn't the kind of family farming Ginger had envisioned either.

"I wanted it to be a family type deal, and I actually thought I could handle more of the work," she said with a laugh. "But it became everybody -- everybody had to plant. It really did turn into the family experience I guess you could say. There was a lot more to it than Mr. George led me to believe."

"I think George has laughed a lot about that," said Chesley Neely, adding that the Fontaines' knowledge was an asset, and that they'd even helped on that first year's trimming.

That first year's family effort included not only Ginger, her electrician husband and her dad, but also her mother Yolanda, her brother Carl Neely and his wife Lacey, and of course, her son, Chad, who was 10 at the time.

"We should have enough background," said Chesley Neely. "Lacey is an Auburn graduate in horticulture and works at Petals from the Past, and Carl is an agronomy and soils graduate from Auburn."

But a little over a year later, the family was thrown a curve when Yolanda Neely was diagnosed with cancer, and Ginger learned she was pregnant with her second child, Ethan.

Mrs. Neely passed away in May 2005. "It has really been a big adjustment," said Ginger. "She meant so much to all of us. If she were here today, she would be right in the middle of all of it. She helped make this happen."

Along the way, Ginger and her family have learned much about Christmas tree farming, picking up knowledge through membership in the Southern Christmas Tree Association and much of their used equipment from tree farms no longer in operation.

On an equipment-buying trip to south Alabama, one seller was shocked to find that Ginger was actually growing trees, instead of just operating a tree lot. "She was so excited because she said they went from more than 100-something tree farms down to next to nothing," said Ginger.

Paul Beavers of Beavers Christmas Tree Farms in Trafford can vouch for that.

"When I first joined the Alabama Christmas Tree Association in 1991, we had 95 members," recounts Beavers. "Today, we have 13 members in the Southern Christmas Tree Association, which includes the old Alabama association."

Beavers blames much of the decline on a proliferation of tree farms several years ago, when there was a push to promote trees as a worthwhile money crop. Unfortunately, the market soon became saturated with tree farms, far outstripping demand.

Also contributing to the decline has been natural disasters such as hurricanes -- like the ones that ultimately forced the Fontaines out of the business -- and the age of the growers.

"The Southern Christmas Tree Association people were so nice and so excited to see us join," said Ginger. "It was a wise decision to join them because we've learned a lot, and they all just wanted to help us. They didn't treat us like competition at all."

"We were the youngest ones in there," said Mike Duncan. "They were like, 'We're glad y'all are young and getting into this.'"

The Sullivan family, who owned the last Christmas tree farm in Chilton County a decade ago, was likewise pleased to see Ginger take the plunge into tree farming.

"Mrs. Sullivan told her daughter that Christmas tree farming is all about creating memories," Chesley Neely said. "She told us a story about a daughter of hers doing some work up in Alaska and overheard a guy talking to somebody about childhood memories. As it turns out, his family would come to their Christmas tree farm when he was a kid, and that was some of his fondest memories of getting together as a family. So she called her mom that night and said, 'Mom, you always told us that Christmas tree farming was about creating memories. Today, I found one of those memories that you talked about.'"

That's just the kind of gift Ginger Duncan is hoping to share with her customers for years to come.

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