by Scott Nicholson
When Sam Cartner and a few others set out their first Christmas tree seedlings in 1959, more than one of their farming neighbors thought they were crazy. Now, forty years later, they have realized that Cartner was crazy like a fox, and many of them have gone into the business themselves.
Cartner runs the Cartner Christmas Tree Farm on Spanish Oak Road in Newland, but the enterprise is so large that he can’t do it alone. His three sons and wife still help in the business, along with between eight and seventeen workers, depending on the season.
The family has four different tracts of trees, slowly expanding the operation over the years. Cartner estimates he has about 300 acres of trees now, but early on, it was slow going. “We had a lot of visitors. It was new to the university (North Carolina State, which operates the Cooperative Extension Service), and they didn’t want to push something that would fall on a bad deal. There were some trees moving in ‘69, ‘70, along through there, and people started saying, ‘Well, you can sell those things.”’
In the mid-70’s, more people got interested in the business after seeing the success of the tree pioneers. “It was something new,” Cartner says.
“it’ss like putting your pants on. If you’re used to putting your left leg in first, you don’t want to stumble and put your right one in first. That’s the way people were about trying something new.”
This year the farm will ship to Minnesota, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, Louisiana, Alabama and other markets. They don’t ship to local markets and work with a Winston-Salem-based distributor to get the trees across the country.
Cartner was one of the few earlly supporter of the industry. “I was county agent and organize the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers in August of 1959,” he recalls. “We still have two who signed the original document, Hernia Dellinger of Crossnore and Conner Weathermam from down in Ingalls. That’s the only ones from Avery County that are still living. There was just handful of us.”
That first group was small, but were lookin toward the future. “There probably weren’t more than ten or fifteen people who were beginning to think.
In other words, it was a new idea, and people just couldn’t conceive of growing treess to sell, so we had a struggle. The first trees that we shipped out went mostly to Rotary Clubs and Churches. We cut and loaded mostly sevens to eights (footers) for three dollars and a half.”
“This area had been a vegetable-producing area, cabbage and beans primarily,” he says. “Of course, some people had beef cattle. Those were the primary money crops, and it was just so uncertain. If you hit, you hit, and if you missed, you missed.”
Cartner says there were very few options for farmers in those days, and getting money from their land was looking harder and harder to do. “We were just looking for something so we could use this steep, rough land to give people an extra source of income. Our first planting, we planted every species we could find. We planted both Norway and Siberian spruce, white pine, Scotch pine.
“After the first rotation, after six or seven years of growing, we decided I fwe were going to stay in the tree business, we were going to have to work with nature. And nature put Fraser fir on a roll in these high mountains. So we gradually eliminated all the others. We only have two spruce trees left on this farm.”
Cartner says that while the wholesale cost of trees has increased, so has all the costs, particularly labor. Other trends have emerged as well. “It takes about thirty-three million cut Christmas trees of all species to furnish all the market,” he says. “We’ve gotten about fifteen to seventeen percent of that market now, when you talk about the Fraser firs that are cut from Virginia down to Georgia across the mountains. We hope we can get twenty-five percent of the market. We don’t want it all, because we couldn’t produce it. It’s the land area that’s the limiting factor.
The Cartners work year-round in the trees, with eight full-time employees; They grow the seedlings from plugs, then plant them in the fields after two years. The trees are replaced with seedlings as they are cut. Unlike many growers, the Cartners are more selective in their cutting, taking trees that are the sizes demanded by the marketing while leaving others to grow a little more.
Still, the late fall-early winter period is when the real work begins. As the days grow shorter, Christmas tree workers see their days grow longer. “This is the push time, because the window of getting rid of them is about five weeks,” says Cartner. “When you struggle for ten years to grow a tree, and you’re ready to sell, and you’ve got five weeks to move it in, you don’t mess around much,”
The farm will be open for choose-and cut, and Cartner handles mail order trees as well, though that has its own special challenges. “When you get one out of the field up here, and you ship to somewhere like New York, and they’ve got their mind made that maybe it’s a little bit different, that’s what you’re faced with. But it’s done fairly well for us.”
The Cartners will ship about 25,000 trees this year, of varying sizes. The cost versus return doesn’t pay off for larger trees, so Cartner says that many growers don’t like to fool with them. They have to grow for many years, taking the time and space that two or three smaller trees could use. “I’ve got trees down There on the shipping lot that are over twenty years old,” he says. “When you keeps. tree that long, and maintain it, and keep the insects off of it, there’s no way you can make any money off of it. The trade won’t handle it.”
Cartner advises that this year’s shoppers might be faced with shortages in several size areas of trees, particularly the six-and-sevens and the over-nine footers.
The Cartner’s tree farm is between 3,500 and 4,500 feet in elevation. His sons are all successful in other professions, but take time off in the shipping season to help out the family business. Cartner’s sons include a professor, a lawyer, and a veterinarian. That’s proof enough that it doesn’t necessarily take brains to be a Christmastree farmer, but it does if you’re going to be successful. And it helps to have a little foresight. Sam Cartner has both.