Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer


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  November 4, 2010

Our annual October Event is over and successful.  The weather was perfect for both weekends.  Now is the time to get the farm ready for our Choose and Cut.  This starts the Friday after Thanksgiving.  This is also the time to double check and make sure we have the workers lined up and scheduled, tree bags and stands ordered and hopefully received and review the problems of last year.  I am a believer of learning from history or as some would say not making the same mistake twice!!

We had our annual tire rolling contest during the October Outing on two separate days and also a roll off between past champions.  Caleb Dupr'e won the first tournament with an amazingly long roll.  We also had a past champion present and available for a "Champion Roll".  Well, Caleb won this.  In our second rolling contest on the following day, Justin Branam won.  He was also the first one to ever roll tires at Mill Hollow probably twenty years ago.  He also was the one which provided us with the wide slick low profile tire named "Justin's Tire".  It is interesting to note that this tire never wins.  To make matters worse, it is heavy when bringing it back up the hill.  Oh yes, Justin did not win with this tire.   

Our postal mailing for Choose and Cut will go out late next week.  As many of you know who enjoyed our October Outing, we are going to eliminate our postal mailing next year and go entirely e-mail.  Why?  Cost and frustration of dealing with the US Post Office is a major concern.  In addition, 95% of our Houston area customers have an email.  For the farm area, this is slightly less at 85%.  

Offsetting the lower costs of email is the concern that not all have email and some will not get stuck in your spam folder.  All we can do in this area is to remind our customers that Mill Hollow will always be open with the October Outing being the last two weekends in October.  Choose and Cut will start the Friday after Thanksgiving and weekends after till Christmas.  Obviously if some questions still exist, we do have this web site which is  routinely updated.  

The coyotes have been very active around the Christmas tree fields this last few weeks.  A few days ago, we even had a coyote pack to the north of the field chasing down dinner while a pack on the south side also doing the same at the same time!!  I suspect this all related to the area hunters having put out corn.  Corn attracts deer and hogs.  For the coyotes, they are probably more interest in the smaller critters like raccoons, possum etc which also like to munch on this corn also.  

I am continually amazed by the on-going fight for control of our Christmas tree fields by the hawks and the crows.  It is obvious that the hawks are the chasers.  However, the crows just do not give up and move to another area.   They just keep coming back to the frustration of the hawks.  It is also interesting that the much bigger vultures just stay out of this territory dispute.  It may be they are the "big elephant" in the room and too big for both the hawks and crows .   

I have put the farm on Facebook.  This allows me to make comments about what I see at the farm so others can follow.  If interested in the mundane, the unusual and just my observations, just go to the farm site on Facebook and become a friend.   I will still try to keep this site relevant and timely and especially for topics too long to cover on Facebook.  The link is on our home page.   Oh yes, clicking on "like" does help us tell others about Mill Hollow.    

October 10, 2010

The last of two shearings is completed.  Now the  remaining tasks are to get the farm ready for our October Outing planned for the last two weekends in October.

My shearing machine engine decided to call it quits during the middle of this last shearing.  I suspected it was going to happen since it was old and I spent a lot of time fiddling with the idle and air/fuel adjustments to get the  engine to start, idle and also  have the power for the shearing blades.  Well, one morning it just refused to go faster than an idle.  Based on my experience with the previous two engines for this machine, it was time to get a replacement.  

My surprise was that they stopped making this engine many years ago but there was another engine which would work.   Well, I ordered that replacement engine and had it shipped overnight.  As you can guess in the country, overnight shipment means you get it in three business days instead of  seven  to ten business days by ground delivery!  This assumes of course they can find Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm.

I finally received my new engine.  As with any engine which you have used for many years, you become accustomed to the noise, the rattles, the idle and fuel/air adjustments and just know what screws will loosen and when the screen on the exhaust will plug.  With a new engine from someone else, everything is different.  It sounds different.  You do not have a fuel/air adjustment.  It runs with a different vibration.  It has an electronic ignition and even a  catalytic converter!!  

Offsetting, it starts on the first and very infrequently the second pull!!  Maybe in a few years of use, I will again to know its as well as my old Echo engine.   I should mention, this shearing machine is roughly 17 years old. Very little of it is still the original equipment.  As parts break or wear out, I just replace or weld as needed.  So far, this has worked.    

We had plenty of rain this summer.  This created a lot of new growth which had to be sheared off.  In addition, it felt like I spent an eternity on the tractor mowing the grass!  Hopefully, the recent cold weather and lack of rain will give me time to spend some time out of the tractor seat.  

The good news is that the trees look great.  It appears these summer rains is just what the Christmas trees wanted.  Better yet, this year we did not even have a hurricane or tropical storm to cause damage and stress.

We did have a two huge pine trees by the hay stack shed and Jude's petting dog cage die.  Normally, this is no problem when you have a chain saw.  However, these trees were leaning over the hay shed.  If cut, they would fall on the shed.  As many of you know, I am an engineer.  I remember my "Statics" and decided with a few cables and some pressure provided by the pick up and tractor.  I could make it fall in the direction away from the hay stack shed.  This involved tieing cables to near the top of the pine tree and using them to determine where the tree would fall.    

It worked.  The shed was undamaged. The two trees landed on the ground roughly two to three feet from the desired location.   It also reminded me again that everything I learned in my engineering course can be used in many different tasks if you knew what you were doing.     

  July 7, 2010

The first shearing of the year is done.  We had and currently still are having plenty of rain which means plenty of growth on the trees to be cut.  The trees look really great.  Now hopefully we will get through the summer and early fall with no prolong droughts or worse yet hurricanes.  

The bad news about all of the recent rains is that the trees are growing but the grass seems to be growing faster!  Marge and I are spending a lot of time on the tractor mowing the grass so they do not shade the lower branches and hamper the formation of new buds.  

A fawn or baby deer was seen in the area just down the hill from the haunted house.  It was really curious on who I was and what I was doing there.  It just looked and looked until I had to sneeze.  (Hey, this is Texas and pollen is everywhere.)  Then, off to another part of the field.    

The is the third faun born in the Christmas tree fields in three years.  I strongly suspect the other two are siblings.   The more you think about it, our Christmas tree fields are perfect for a doe to have her young in.  The fields are protected from feral hogs and to a more limited extent coyotes by an electric fence.  In addition, we have plenty of grass for the mother to munch on and to make milk for the fawn.   The fawn can also hide under any one of the multitude of Christmas trees when ever mom is out having dinner.  In addition, Jude, petting dog, is getting old and really would prefer laying on the porch versus patrolling the fields and keeping critters at bay.   

I give a talk on the hay ride about the snakes at Mill Hollow.  One of the snakes we have and I talk about is a rat snake.  Some people call it a pine snake since it can also climb pine trees.  Others call it a chicken snake since it also loves baby chicks for lunch.  It has a variety of names.  Best of all it is non-poisonous even though it may scare the "living daylight" out of you in an encounter.   

Well, we have a huge rat snake at the farm.   We routinely see it when it patrols the Christmas tree fields and the area between the metal barn and the house.  

This year, we found its shedded skin.  The length of this snake is over seven feet long.  

I am routinely asked why not kill this snake.  Well, this snake eats mice, squirrels and other small critters.  In addition, it appears to keep the other snakes out of its territory which covers all of the Christmas tree fields.  Since many of these other snakes are poisonous like a rattle snake, copper head, water moccasin and coral, I am happy this very big rat snake calls Mill Hollow home and does not like intruders in its territory.   Considering its size, I also suspect that the local hawk also leaves it alone.

Some day when I get bored to death, I will try to find out how big and how long can a rat snake live!!   Maybe, we have a record breaking reptile at Mill Hollow.      

April 10, 2010

I love spring time in Texas.  We do have our infrequent periods of rains, cold winds from the North and maybe a snow flurry or two.  But making up for this is the beautiful cool sunny crisp days in between.  This time reminds me of the great summers in Wisconsin when I was growing up.  It also reminds me how nice it is to be in warm Texas.  This is really our spring and a lot better than snow, 20 below zero or a very cold wind which eventually turns to a very wet slushy spring in cold country.     

This is also the time when our work load at the farm allows us to sit on our hill, have a leisurely warm cup of coffee and take in nature around us.  It may be a few deer munching the new grass in Christmas tree field, the hawks looking for lunch among the Christmas trees or the fluttering little birds picking up seeds on the ground.  If one takes the time to observe, it is amazing on what is going around you.  

This is also the time of the year we plant the Christmas tree seedlings, put handles on the christmas trees (cut all branches approximately a foot off the ground) and stake any tree which is growing sideways.  Unlike shearing, this is a relaxing non-pressure type of work.  If I do not get it done today, there is always tomorrow, the day after and even next year.  

The fallen swing tree has been delimbed and now to start working on cutting up the huge trunk.  From the limbs alone, I have cut, split and stacked enough firewood to last probably three or four years.  Reducing the  remaining trunk to firewood is the next task.  This does take some planning since it is above ground and delicately balanced by the stump and two limbs inbeded in the ground.  For safety, I need to put the "hung up" trunk on the ground.  This is easily said but harder to do.  One bad cut by the chain saw can cause the chain saw blade to be wedged by the weight of this huge many ton tree trunk.  Well, I only have one chain saw so this could be a major problem.  As I learned from years of using the chain saw, plan the cut before you even start the saw and most importantly take your time  and frequently re-evaluate the situation.    

After the swing tree  is done, I am planning on moving to the fallen oak from Hurricane Ike.   I also estimate this firewood to cover our heating and log fire needs for another tree years above what the swing tree will do.  Since it has been naturally dried for two years, this firewood will be what we have available for our customers.  

Each year, we do have customers who not only take home a Christmas tree but also some oak firewood for the fireplace.  Like hot chocolate and Christmas music, a oak log fire in the fireplace and the smell and feel of a real Christmas tree does set a memorable atmosphere especially when decorating a family real Christmas tree.  I suspect pulling out the fake dusty tree from the  attic for decorating even with a hot drink and music is a poor substitute for a real Christmas tree.  I would even place getting and decorating a fake tree in the same task category of washing the windows, sweeping the floor or some other mundane house hold tasks.  In my opinion, it does not signal the beginning of the Christmas season.

Jude, our petting dog, also likes this fresh cut oak.  When we are sitting out on the porch and Jude becomes bored, he will go to the wood pile, sniff and find that perfect small knobby piece and pull it out.  This piece becomes his chew toy until all of the knobs have been removed and the bark totally removed.  I suspect this is why even the vet comments that his teeth and gums are in great shape for especially an old dog.       

As you can see from the comments so far this year, it is very quiet.  I have nothing I consider interesting to add to "Breaking News".  This is of course assuming no one really cares that we have two flocks of crows fighting for control of Mill Hollow!!  Besides a lot of noise, we still have not seen any evidence of which flock will provide us with our morning wake up noise.   Considering how clever crows seem to be, I suspect they will find out that maybe getting together may be the best for both and also create more of a morning ruckus to wake up Mill Hollow.          

February 10, 2010

Christmas tree farmers are by nature optimistic.  We plant a crop which will not generate any income for anywhere from  four to six years.  In addition, the Christmas trees could die from variety of causes over these six years before they become a family's Christmas tree.  The causes could be from too much rain, too little rain, bugs, fungi, disease, storms, hurricanes or the tree just can not make it.  Oh yes, we are also unable to insure this crop with federal crop insurance.  The one thing that Christmas trees having going for them is that the likelihood of Christmas being cancelled in four to six years is pretty slim if non-existent.  

The Virginia pine, blue ice (Arizona cypress) and Leyland cypress Christmas tree seedlings have been planted where ever a tree was cut or died.  With the current rains, they should do quite well until the hot dry summer days arrive.  At that point, it is up to Mother Nature to decide if the needed summer showers will come.  In the very unlikely situation they do not and the seedlings "bite the dust", we will just replant again and hope Mother Nature is more receptive to our water needs the following year.   Irrigation is a option but is very expensive if one considers the hills.  With our experience over 25 years of growing Christmas trees, irrigation is hard to justify especially since it would raise the cost of Christmas trees to our customers.  Our goal is for families to take home a beautiful and affordable Christmas tree.  

Our Christmas trees this last season were the best quality we have ever seen.  It takes a very, very bad drought to affect our Christmas trees.  This is because we have clay below a layer of sand near to the tree roots which will hold the winter/spring moisture and more crucially any summer showers.  With the dry conditions in Texas this last year, our trees survived and even prospered with a few summer showers. The losses were pretty much limited to the seedlings and surprisingly were only sightly above what we seen in normal years.    

The choose and cut period at our farm is what Marge and I refer to as "managed chaos".  We have the best customers in the world and do this for them.  However, we do have one or two customers which we would like to go somewhere else.  Specifically, the one(s) who threw our relaxation bench on the wooden bridge into the creek and also the one(s) who on another day shut off our main water valve!!  

The bench probably ended up in Lake Livingston with the subsequent rains.  The lack of water with all the families at the farm was of a greater concern.  The question was it the water well ($1,000 to fix and a couple of days without water), a broken water line (a day with out water and plenty of manual muddy work to fix) or a overloaded breaker (a walk down the steep hill, across the bridge and partially up the next hill to the water well).  After going through the above possible problems, the lack of water was none of these causes.  The problem was that the main water valve near our flag pole was soon discovered to be closed.  Obviously, this just gave me a few more grey hairs!  As many of you know, I am nearly all gray!!  

We really appreciate the customers who do look out for what we have and "correct" any malicious behavior on the part of the few bent on destruction and total chaos!  Thank you.   

We experiment with various species of possible Christmas trees.  Some work and others just do not make it.  The current experimental Christmas tree, Japanese cedar, did reach the point of us finding out that we can grow it.  It does take a longer time and also can not stand hard freezes.  With a hard freeze, the tips change to a brown color but do not appear to be dead.  

Before marketing the Japanese cedar as a Christmas tree, we needed to know if it will last in a warm house even with the lack of water for the four to six weeks some families have it up.    

The Japanese cedar was our family Christmas tree at our house this year.  It passed with flying colors especially since we let the water go dry for three of the six weeks it was up.  Surprisingly, it did not dry up, turn brown or drop any needles.  Just to make sure, I did light a match and placed the flame next to the needles.  The Japanese cedar needles did not catch on fire.   

My major concern about the Japanese cedar was allergies.  I do get hay fever and especially allergic to the cedar  pollen from cedar trees in the Texas Hill Country.  In the winter when the wind blows from the west, I sneeze and suffer like I was in Austin, Texas!  This Japanese cedar did not cause me to to have any discomfort!!!  

The Japanese cedar is not a tree for everyone.  It is a relatively light density tree.  The weak branches do require light weight ornaments.  This next selling season, we will make a few available to try.  When our customers do this, we really appreciate feedback, good and bad, about our experimental Christmas trees.

Why do we experiment in growing different types of trees?  With one species, you have the real risk that some bug, disease, or fungi will materialize and kill or deform all of the Christmas trees.  If you grow only one Christmas tree specie and this happens, you are out of business!  

I consider growing Christmas trees is being risky enough when you are reliant on Mother Nature and in an area where hurricanes do happen.  Therefore, I like to have a variety of species growing on the farm where the lose of one specie does not cause us to close the gate.  

We are always on the look out for other species which can survive the hot, humid and bug infested Texas!!  We would love to grow the firs and balsams, but this past experiment resulted in a 100% failure in six months time.  What the hot summer did not kill, the local insects had for lunch. 

I am currently looking for other species.  If you have any suggestions, do let me know.