Amidst Decline, W.Va. Christmas Tree Farms Carry On Traditions
People have been decorating Christmas trees in their homes since the 16th century. It’s a tradition that began in Germany and spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
According to statistics provided by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, about 4.3 million trees are sold in the United States each year and about 20 percent of them come from the Tar Heel state. All of their top growing counties are in the Appalachian mountains.
But in West Virginia, the industry is much smaller and declining. The 2017 Census of Agriculture for West Virginia ranks the Mountain State as 27th in Cultivated Christmas Trees. That same year, West Virginia growers cut nearly 43,000 trees.
Bob Whipkey has been selling Christmas trees since the early 1990s.
“I always enjoy watching the people. You get a lot of families coming out and their kids, everybody's in a good mood, everybody's joyful," he said. "I have families who come out and spend the day — just bring a lunch and spend the day just walking around looking at trees and finally getting [one].".
Whipkey says he sells 200-300 trees each season over about a two week period beginning the day after Thanksgiving. He converted what he calls unusable farm land on the side of a hill to plant trees. The process takes seven to eight years until the trees are ready for harvest.
Whipkey explained that the time he has to work the hardest is in mid summer when it's the hottest.
“You have a window [of] about one month to shear all your trees and you have to do it while the trees are new growth or just putting on a new growth," he said. "The tree will set more buds to make it come in thicker the next year and it shapes the tree.”
Tree farming can be a lucrative business, according to Whipkey, but after more than 30 years, he is winding down his business due to age and health reasons. He said the number of choose and cut tree growers is declining in West Virginia.
“We had over 150 growers in the state and we're down to less than 90 now," he said. "And choose and cut growers like myself, there's only about 28-30 of those in the whole state."
West Virginia has nearly 12 million acres of forested land, but most of that is covered in hardwood, not pine and spruce.
For a lot of people, choosing and cutting your own Christmas tree is a family tradition. Cody Williams is creating a tradition with his own son, based on one he had with his father.
“A couple of years ago, we actually dug up a picture of me and my dad whenever I was probably two or three, but a picture of me and dad cutting down a tree and so I just decided that's something I definitely wanted to do with my kids,” he said.
Another customer, Sierra Linger, was out at a tree farm recently and said she has a strategy on the best way to find a tree.
“So, I have a thing where when I first get out of the car, I try to pick out the tree that I want before I get to look at them. And then I go see if I'm right. And I did," she said. "So, this is the very first one that I picked, and I thought it was the prettiest one, the greenest and it smelled the best."
Sierra said she hopes Christmas tree farms will be around for years.
“I love it. It's something that I want to continue to do," she said. "When I get older, get married and have kids, I want to come pick out a tree. It's a big part of the Christmas tradition and I really love it."