Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer


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November 25, 2002

The rain date for the October Outing Festival is history.  The weather was beautiful on Sunday, the crowd was large and everyone hopefully enjoyed the time.   They coyotes did come back during that night.  I presume they cleaned up any dropped hot dogs.  

Now we have three days to get ready for the annual choose and cut.   After doing this for over fourteen years, we do know what has to be done.  The hard part is preparing for the unexpected which does occur every year!  It may be rain, stuck cars, a tornado (last year), broken shaker, burned up cash register, broken water pipes, or whatever obstacle we must face and overcome.   I do refer to our choose and cut period as being "managed chaos".  

Now for the update on the "Mill Hollow Annual Invitational Down Hill Tire Rolling Contest".  This Contest started fourteen years ago between the Branam boys, Sarah and I.   Well, everyone is off to college except Justin and I.  Therefore, the tradition must still go on!  

It was held this year in the driving rain on the first day of the October Outing Festival.  It was between Justin and I.  Three rolls would determine this years winner.  It would be a very quick and decisive decision with no tire roll-off's.  

I had maturity to my advantage.  Justin has age and an instant  friend with Jude the petting dog to his advantage.  

I selected the tire with the most tread.  Hey, it was raining.  The excitement was high as the camera flashed and documented the pre rolling mandatory picture .  Then the rain came and pelted us on the starting line.  

Well, I rolled first!  I would swear a Christmas tree bent over and caught my tire stopping it dead in its tracks before it even went a hundred feet.  This was the worse roll in my fourteen year history.  

Justin rolled and his tire just went on past the Christmas trees, past the blue port-a-potties and disappeared into the woods .  I suspect it probably scared the daylights out of the wild hogs who were frequenting the farm and resting in the woods.

I  was soaking wet and worse yet had lost the first round.  Thank goodness, the winner is determined by two wins out of three rolls.

I did notice that Justin was petting the petting dog Jude, rubbing his chest and whispering into his ear.  Well, I just figured Justin likes dogs but was I wrong.   A partnership had been obviously formed between the two.   

I rolled first since I lost the previous round.  The tire started out with a great spin and straight down the hill.  To my horror, Jude was right behind it and nipping at its tread! (Nope, our rules do not cover nipping dogs.) You can guess the rest.  I lost and Justin is again the winner with a nearly perfect roll again!  

Oh well, there is next year!  Justin did drive the family car up to the farm.  Hmm, I wonder if Justin will be heading off to college next year.  If so, I could win the Mill Hollow Annual Invitational Down Hill Tire Rolling Contest by default!  

You may wonder why I again write about this since I also talked about it last year.  Well, this is a tradition between the Branam boys and I.  I love traditions and the memories they create.

Many of our customers have developed similar competitions and traditions at the farm. Mill Hollow is a place where memories are made.   The only thing we require is that each family experience the farm and make memories in their own family way.  Oh yes, if the parents do loose to the kids, you can not leave them at the farm!  

November 1, 2002

Rain, Rain, go away and please come back some other day.  

This phrase best describes how we feel right now.  During our October Outing Festival, we had three rainy days out of the four days of the festival.  We did cancel on two of these days and probably should have done the same on the third day.  Normally during the last two weekends in October, we expect at most one day of drizzle and maybe a rain shower.  In most cases, the rain is limited and not bad enough to even consider cancelling.

The only time we had a problem of this degree was back in 1996.  On the Sunday night of the first weekend, we got sixteen inches of rain.  (For you old timers, this was the flood that cut Houston off from the world.)   Well, we were open at the farm, a little wet and muddy, but still opened the next weekend.  This year, we got the same sixteen inches of rain but spread out over the two weekends!    

Because of the number of telephone calls and emails, we have set Sunday November 24 as the rain date.  We still do need to know if you are coming.  Please RSVP as you would for the October festival.  

Why so late?  Well, we do have commitments for private parties at the farm on other weekends.  Also, we must reserve one "sunny" weekend to spray for bugs and to kill the fire ants.  If we did not do this, you might have a few aphids in your tree when you come up and cut it and take it home.

What else is happening?  The wild hogs have been testing our electric fence during the first two weekends in October.  Well, they found our weakness.  

These are not the stupid hogs you find in other parts of Texas.  These pigs have been around this area for one hundred and fifty years.  As you can guess, all the dumb ones were long ago bacon on the table.  

Why are we concerned about a few piggys running around the Christmas tree field?  These little piggys love the roots of Christmas trees.  They will root around a tree, eat the roots.  A Christmas tree without roots will die.  In addition, they make the field very hard and muddy to walk in.  When you come up to the farm, you will see the damage they did in one night in the field by the tree house.

Our weakness detected and exploited by the pigs was the two driveways that lead into our property.  The first time they hit, they went past a house and literally followed our neighbor out of the driveway.  After I electrified this approach, they found the second drive and had one pig run through the fence there.  Well, he broke and grounded out the fence and opened up the field to his "smarter" comrades.   I am sure he got a couple of good shocks and will probably not volunteer for that duty again.  

What did I do?  I sealed off all of the openings with a breakaway electric fence. A pig may still run through this fence but will not jeopardize the main electric fence around the field.  Also, I did place a rope snoot high at the areas where they might try to run through.  The thought being that the rope may trip them or at least confuse them to what they are doing.   A neighbor has also placed a pig trap on the pathway to the vineyard.   

As I said previously, these pigs are smart and obviously learn.  The next area I expected them to test would be the unprotected north side of the Christmas tree field.  I did install 1/4 mile of fence to protect this area.   Sure enought, they did test this area but did not make it through. 

With hunting season in progress, I am hoping that enough hunters are fed up with these pigs eating their corn and scaring away the deer that they will go for bacon on the table instead of venison.  By the way, the pork from these pigs is delicious.

For all of the customers who volunteered to come out and hunt them, thanks.  I really appreciate the offer.  However, these pigs are smart.  They see a gun, they are over the hill and on the way to hit an unprotected deer feeder.  I have not seen a pig yet when I had my pig rifle with me!  I do appreciate your offer but really do not want to waste your time.

I guess I am like the captain in Moby Dick.  "I" want to beat this challenge! 

Well, I am still looking for the culprit that took my grapes.  One thing I am sure is that it was not these pigs.  They are too small.

September 11, 2002

The big news at the farm is the loss of our muscadine grape crop.  This was the year for me to make a few bottles of wine.  I had already bought the necessary wine making equipment and was reading up on the best way to do this.  I even started measuring the sugar content.  The more sugar means the more alcohol.  

Well, the grapes were getting very sweet and plump and plenty of them.  I was starting to worry if maybe I should buy some bigger containers and a lot more bottles.  

As we left the farm on Sunday night a few weeks ago, I did check out the grapes and decided to give them a few more days of being on the vine .  This should make them sweeter yet.  I would become a wine maker next weekend.

The next Friday, we came up to the farm.  I unloaded the additional wine making containers.  Jude, the petting dog, and I took a stroll down to the vineyard just to see how sweet were the grapes.  

As we came out into the vineyard, Jude put his nose to the ground started smelling everything in sight.  Most of his attention was right underneath the vines.  As I walk towards the vines, I could see in the fading light absolutely no purple of very ripe grapes!  In the whole vineyard, I found only two small purple grapes on a branch about seven feet off the ground.

It happened again.  Five years ago, I lost my very first grapes to an emu.  Well, the coyotes found the emu and we found its leg bone.  It was not this emu unless it could walk on one leg.   

I also ruled out the crows.  There is no way that the five crows which consider our place, their place, could eat 100 pounds of grapes, leave no hulls and still be able to fly.   We do have pigs, they are continually rooting and eating and they do smell.  However, these wire were six feet off the ground.   This would require a very big pig!  A pig this size can eat all the grapes it wants.

The ground was hard and dried.  I did find what looked like either the toe imprint of an emu or maybe a deer track.  Well, I am now thinking we must have one huge deer in the area or an other discarded emu.   Maybe my solution is to find someone who wants to hunt for free at a vineyard and let them munch on all the sweet grapes they want.  Better yet, I will just wait for the Coyotes to take of the emu if an emu and and the area hunters to take care of the very big deer.  

I put away my wine making equipment and now planning a quick trip to Spec's.  Marge keeps telling me that I probably saved money by buying my wine .  I also have the satisfaction of making some Mill Hollow Critter very happy and fat.  

I have finished the final shearing of the Christmas trees.  The trees look great.  The rain we got this last weekend should put the final growth on just before the October Outing Festival.  

We are nearly complete with the Spooky Hollow Trail.  All we are missing is finding one discarded mattress along the road.  It is amazing that when you need someone's trash you can not find it along a Texas highway.  

The sledding hill is still in the developmental stage.  Another words, I still have not had the time to put together the prototype sled.  I am starting to now worry that it will not be available for the October Outing Festival.  Oh well, there is always Choose and Cut to shoot for and it maybe next year.   

June 15, 2002

We have just completed giving our Christmas trees their semi-annual haircut or shearing. The trees do look very nice this year.   

This year will be remembered for the extremes in the weather.  It normally takes me four weekends to do this job since it does require walking 75 miles around the trees with a forty pound shearing machine on my back.  

The first weekend, a very cold front came through and I froze.  This last weekend, it was in the 90's with a very high humidity level.  Well, I sweated away and kept thinking how nice it was to be freezing a few weeks ago.  Oh well, this is typical Texas weather.

On Monday night, Marge and I celebrated the end of this shearing session.  We opened a bottle of  1969 Louis Martini pinot noir from my wine closet.  Thirty two years of aging made it taste great.  In addition, this bottle brought back the memories of the 1960's in California and our yearly excursion to Napa Valley in my MGB with the purpose of tasting all the wine we could and buying the best.    

 Well, this was my last bottle from the 1960's. I still have a couple of bottles from the 1970's and 1980's.  With my colestrol limiting the number of steaks I eat, it is getting to the point where Marge and I open the red wine bottles when we see them starting to leak at the cork and just enjoy the wine by itself.  With good aged mellow red wine, this is very pleasurable and pleasing to the palate even with out the so tempting red meat.  

So far, we have had only two bottles which were not drinkable.  One was from a bad cork which we did not see before the bottle was partially emptied by leaking.  The other was a very cheap wine from Italy.  

I bought the Italian wine at the local grocery store in 1968 for mixing with Seven-Up for a wine cooler.  The store was out of Red Mountain and Thunderbird so I had to settle for this very cheap imported wine.  However, it did have a cork, came in a substantial liter bottle and did have an Italian name.  

For those of you who did not live during those days, Red Mountain and Thunderbird were sold by the gallon.  The rumors were that it was rinse from the winery floor.  With Seven-Up to hide the taste, it did make a cheap wine cooler.  If I remember correctly, a gallon of milk cost more than a gallon of these wines.    

The Italian wine ended up in the wine closet with hopes that maybe aging will do something to improve its taste.  It may be cheap but I was hoping that maybe a few years of aging would make it into a very fine wine without the Seven-Up.  

Last year, I opened it.  It definitely did not improve with age.  It just tasted bad.  However, it did improve the smell of the sink drain.    

  February 15, 2002

Mill Hollow will be the site for the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association Region 2 field day.  This is open to all who pay their $10.  If you are interested in growing Christmas trees, I would strongly recommend joining the association and attending these type of events.  You can learn a lot from the people in the industry.  For more information, follow this link.

Marge and I will be contributing to this by telling you what worked for us.  It may not work for you but hopefully it will start you thinking.  In return, we do ask that you share freely what you have found to work for you and especially what did not.  After all, we probably learn more from failures than we do from successes.  

We also will have a CEU credit available and possibly someone to talk about making jams, jellies and other items for the public to buy.  

Hopefully, we will see you at Mill Hollow.  Oh yes, children are welcome! 

February 1, 2002

Another selling season is history.  We are in the process of putting away the equipment and planting the Christmas tree seedlings.  

We are also looking at what else to do at the farm.  At the top of the list is a sledding hill and a new sales barn.  

The site of the sledding hill has been found.  All I have to do is build a few sleds.  The bad news is that we will have to charge for this activity since we will be hiring a worker to maintain control of the all the kids who will slide down the hill on a Texas sled. We will keep this charge very affordable.  

We also need another building.  We are just getting too many people at the farm to handle in the house.  This is especially the situation on a rainy day.  We have the design and location for this sales barn all picked out.  Now it is just a matter of Marge and I agreeing on the extras!  

Yesterday, I went our for the first time in a couple of months and tried starting the 1968 MGB.  Well, it does not start!  It looks like it is time for me to put in another set of points, maybe change the oil and clean the spark plugs.  I definitely must also give it a tender washing!  It is the "loving" care which make old English sports car start and run!  

This MGB is also an area of discussion between Marge and I.  I personally believe my MGB deserves a spot in the new sales building to keep it worm, dry and clean.  Tractors, trailers and American cars and trucks can go in the barn but not my MGB!