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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Growing a Christmas tradition

Friday, December 26, 2008

Rayvon Romine is one of the few Christmas tree farmers around. Over a span of 10 years, Romine has grown about 2,500 trees. He now has about 100 left. Photo by Emily McIntosh
"Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, of all the trees most lovely."

Remember those cold frosty mornings when your hands and face would feel numb, sort of like the mornings we've had recently, but you didn't care because you and your family were out searching for the biggest and best Christmas tree to put in your home? Sometimes, when you and your family found one, cut it down and brought it to the house, your dad probably had to get the chainsaw out again by the time you reached the door because the tree ended up being too big to fit through. Many don't remember those days, though, because most people now have fake or tinsel trees to put their presents under at Christmas time. But there still are a few Christmas tree farms around. From Thanksgiving until perhaps the day before Christmas, Christmas tree farmers are busy chopping and shaping Christmas trees for their customers. One Christmas tree farm, near Camp, is owned and operated by Rayvon Romine.

Before Romine retired and started his Christmas tree-growing hobby, he worked at the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative for 26 years.

Romine said a friend planted the idea in his head of growing Christmas trees. "I was growing Loblolly pines on this side and a friend of mine said, 'Well, why don't you grow some Christmas trees?' That was an idea," Romine said. "So I talked to Forestry and in Arkansas you can buy Virginia pines from the Arkansas Forestry. The Scotch, I had to go to Houston, Mo., to get them. They cost me about six to seven times more (than it was to buy the Virginia)."

He said he has been selling his trees for about 10 years. It took him at least five years or more to actually get the farm operational and wait for the trees to grow tall enough to be sold as Christmas trees. "I sat my rows 8-feet apart so I could get my tractor between them, and I sat the trees 5-feet apart in the rows," Romine said. "That was just my way of doing it." He said there are other ways of planting the trees and each farmer has his own preference. "I think I set out 2,500 (trees both sellable and nonsellable) over a time span," Romine said.

Romine explained how he went through year after year of planting. "The first year, I believe I set out about a thousand (trees) and then about 500 each year so they wouldn't all come off at the same time," Romine said. "I'd set them out at the spring of the year just as early as possible, as soon as the ground quit freezing, the reason (being) to get all the spring rains on those first seedlings, and if you have a real dry summer, you will lose several trees."

"In a good year, you'll lose 10 or 15 percent (of the trees planted). In a bad year, you may lose 25 percent," Romine said. He also said there is a deer problem as well. He said deer will eat the seedlings and bite them off at the ground.

There is also another problem in growing Christmas trees. "Some of them (the trees) just will not make a Christmas tree," Romine said. "They'll have a big hole on the side of them or a natural growth. I'll mess with them two or three years to try to shape them and fill that hole up. If they don't shape up, I just cut them, dig them up with a tractor and throw them in the brush pile." Romine said that out of the 2,500 trees he planted he was probably able to sell about half of them.

Romine grows two types of Christmas trees -- Virginia pine and Scotch pine. Each one can be grown and shaped into the perfect Christmas tree. However, they do have their differences. "The Virginia (grows about 5 to 6 feet tall) about five years, of course, that's depending on your soil conditions," Romine said. "The Scotch, it'll take about seven to nine years."

"The Virginia also takes a bit more work in getting them shaped," Romine said.

Though the Scotch variety of Christmas tree costs more, the Virginia tree, according to Romine, sells better. "There's a bit of a different tint to them (too)," Romine said. "But the Virginia will make a worse mess in the house as far as the needles falling off (but with) any tree you're going to get some foliage fall off."

There are some pros and cons to having a real Christmas tree versus a fake, plastic or tinsel tree. "A real tree, the pro part, you can get the pine smell and of course the natural look," Romine said. "On the bad side, you have to keep watering them, they make a mess and (you have to) be careful with any type of fire around them or hot lights because of the fire hazard."

"The fire hazard is definitely a bad side to the real tree," Romine said. "On the good side, I do like the smell of fresh pine."

Allergies are also a problem for those who like having a real tree for Christmas. "Some people are allergic to pine trees," Romine said. "I found that out for sure, I had a steady customer for several years and they didn't show one year. I saw them in town after Christmas and they were apologizing for not coming to get a tree. (I said) 'You don't owe me any apologies, you know.' They said, 'But we love the real tree.' But the gentleman's wife said, 'Well, I found out I'm allergic to them.' (I said), 'What do you mean?' She said, 'Well, every year around Christmas, I would get stuffy and a rash. We'd get rid of the Christmas tree and it would all go away,'" Romine said.

Romine now has about 100 trees left. He said he is trying to get out of the business, even though he has enjoyed it for so long. He said he realizes that he is not as young as he used to be, but he said he wants to remain active.

Romine's 100 Virginia and Scotch Christmas trees look like silent, jolly, green sentinels, almost like green gum drops on toothpicks, ready and willing to go home as someone's Christmas tree.

Romine added, there is another good side of buying a real Christmas tree. "I have several (customers) who bring their kids out and I get a bigger kick out of the kids and they'll see the other kids and what have you, picking them (trees) out. Of course the kids (say), 'Mommy, I want this one. Daddy, I want that one,'" Romine said. "I get the love and joy (out of Christmas tree farming) with that, too."

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