Christmas Grows All Year Long At Local Tree Farm

Published 5:25 pm Thursday, December 6, 2012

Santa Claus would feel right at home at J & J Treeland in Prospect. At this local Christmas tree farm owned and operated by John Young, every day of the year is a preparation for Christmas.

John Young knows the Christmas tree business well – he has been growing trees for the past 34 years.

“We had all this land, and we were trying to find a way to make some kind of money with it,” Young related. “My brother Freddie had a friend, Jim Bowen, who was a forester. They got me involved because I had the land.”

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The fledgling tree business started small, and like the trees, it grew.

“We started out with three guys growing Christmas trees,” Young continued. “After my brother died, Jim and I were partners in the business for about 20 years. Then Jim took a position with the Department of Forestry in Charlottesville, and at that point I bought him out.”

As the tree business expanded, so did the workload.

“We got to a point with planting trees and more trees, greed overtook us,” Young related. “It got to where weekends weren't going to cut it. Somebody had to be looking after the trees all the time.”

Like Santa in his workshop at the North Pole, the local tree farmer realized that he needed “elves.”

Young explained that the hiring of workers is a seasonal thing. Seasonal, in this case, refers to all four seasons.

“You need some help in the spring to plant trees,” Young noted. “You need a lot of help in June, July, and August to shear the trees. In the fall, October and November, you go out in the fields and tag trees and get your fields mowed.”

The bulk of the seasonal work is done during the hottest time of the year.

“It's a lot like working tobacco,” Young's daughter Justine commented.

“It's pretty brutal when you're out there all day,” Young added.

Shearing, or shaping the trees, can be done several ways.

“You can use a knife which is like a machete and very thin,” Young explained. “You walk around the tree swinging downward.”

That technique can be dangerous as well as tedious. Young prefers a mechanical device, a converted weed eater with wand and blade attached.

“It's hard work, especially after eight or nine hours – and the bigger the tree, the more you have to stretch up to shear it,” he noted.

Once December arrives, more workers are needed to cut trees and make wreaths.

“We make all the wreaths for Colonial Williamsburg,” Young noted. “Every wreath and all the garlands and roping come out of this place.”

This Christmas season Young has five workers assisting him.

“Lester Williams has been with me for the past 28 years,” Young said. “He takes two weeks off from his job every year to help, and I have two Mexican women and two teenaged boys who are home-schooled.”

The women usually make wreaths or clip the material for wreaths, a big job during the Christmas season. In addition to 30 acres planted in trees, Young has another 20 acres of trees for wreath material.

“I grow boxwood and yellow juniper to make the fancier wreaths with blue, green, and yellow material,” he added.

As for the Christmas tree varieties, J & J Treeland offers a number of choices: White Pine, Norway Spruce, Serbian Spruce, and Blue Spruce, Canaan Fir, Concolor Fir, Turkish Fir, and Grand Fir. White Pines are ready to cut in six to seven years while firs take eight to ten years to mature.

“White Pines used to be the most popular,” the local farmer stated. “Now it's Frazier Firs. It's all about what's in fashion.”

Getting those trees from field to market is, of course, dependent on Mother Nature.

“People don't understand the forces of nature,” Young observed. “If you have a dry year the trees will suffer. Then if you have a 12-inch snowfall a week before Christmas nobody's going to come out and buy a tree. Animals can also damage trees. It's a gamble.”

While Santa is always welcome at J & J Treeland, his reindeer might not be encouraged to visit.

“Deer have gotten to be a problem,” Young related. “What they like to do is come along and bite the buds off the end of every branch.”

The local tree farmer has tried deer repellents but without much success.

“Repellents might work for awhile, but after two months those deer have figured it out,” he explained. “The smell might not be good, but what they're eating is not affected.”

Despite all the drawbacks, Young continues to provide perfectly shaped trees each holiday season.

“In our heyday we'd have 5,000 white pines cut and waiting to be shipped out by tractor trailer,” he said.

These days the local tree farm depends on established customers and the Internet and a Facebook page for sales. J & J Treeland is also listed on the “Virginia Grown” website of “cut your own” trees.

One recent sale from the Internet was a 21-foot tree.

“We like to sell big trees, and we have big trees,” Young commented. “We sold the 21-foot tree to a couple in Lynchburg. The man and his teenaged sons picked it out. Then we had to figure out how to cut it so it wouldn't break any limbs when it fell. We cut the tree and rolled it onto a low trailer – I would say that tree weighed about 400 pounds.”

Another large tree, a 16-footer, went to the Comfort Inn in Burkeville.

“The manager told me he put the picture of that tree on Facebook, and a lot of people came by just to see it,” Young reported.

As might be expected, Young is a big proponent of live Christmas trees.

“Putting up a real Christmas tree is like watching a ball game,” he said. “You can see the game better on TV, but there's nothing like being in a ball park yourself with 40,000 other people. It's real because you're right there.”

During the Christmas season, J & J Treeland becomes a family endeavor. Young's daughter Justine does the Farmers Markets and granddaughter Sarah takes care of the Facebook page.

Last year, as an added attraction for the farm, Justine Young acquired a 2,400-pound Belgian draft horse named Jim and trained him to pull a wagon.

“We do the wagon rides, and we have a tractor and wagon for hay rides,” Young noted. “We also have our little train out there for the kids to ride.”

Young believes that visiting a working farm is an educational experience for children.

“I think it's just good for children to get out and see these things,” he commented. “Half of them don't know about how anything grows. Then we have the big horse, two sheep and two llamas, so if children come they can see the animals.”

Young, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania when he was a boy and spent summers at his uncle's farm in North Carolina, believes a successful farmer must be observant.

“So much of it is based on observation and making conclusions,” he added.

Even to the casual observer it is obvious that John Young enjoys the Christmas tree business.

“I've had people come out on Christmas morning and buy a tree because a child had decided to come home at the last minute,” Young concluded. “We're always here – right up to the end.”

John Young, and Santa Claus, too, both understand that when it comes to Christmas, the end never comes.