Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer


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October 10, 2011

The fall rains and cooler weather have arrived and the record breaking heat and drought has been broken.  

The Virginia pine Christmas trees look amazing great with very minimal loses of the marketable trees.  With the Leyland cypress, we have not seen the historic spring growth and currently waiting to see if they come out of their summer heat hibernation with a fall growth spurt.  What this means is that the Leyland cypress we see now are the same ones left after last year's selling season.  We do not have the height or fullness we normally have in a normal year.  We will be encouraging our customers to consider taking a Virginia pine Christmas tree this year.  The good news is that we still have plenty of Leyland cypress.  If they make it out of hibernation, we will again have plenty big and beautiful Christmas trees next year.  

Rebal, the quarter horse, who gave many, many children their first horse ride has died.  She was a very, very old 36 years and out in pasture with other "over the hill" horses enjoying retirement for the last eight years.  She was buried in the pasture which she loved to trot and even gallop over.

If you are looking in the mail for your reminder of our October Outing or December choose and cut, it will not come.  We have discontinued sending these reminders to the ever increasing cost and a little frustration in dealing with the US post office.  We have instead gone to email reminders.  These went out today.  Did you know that 90% of our customers gave us an email address?.  

If you have friends or family who do not use email, do not routinely check email or changed their email addresses, please remind them that Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm is still here!!!     

September 12, 2011

The record breaking heat and drought continues for most of Texas including our area.  Surprisingly, the Christmas trees and especially the Virginia pine are doing quite well.  With the Leyland cypress, they go into hibernation during the summer and then start growing again when the weather cools and the fall rains start.   In a few weeks, we should see the start of their fall growth cycle.  

With this drought, I am just happy the Christmas trees are surviving.  Yes, a few have bit the dust but not the number to make me worry about the Christmas tree supply this year or for years to come.

Wild fires do make the news.  However, these wild fires have not affected Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm.  Our adjacent forest are still green with very few dead trees.  I suspect this is because of the few rains we have received and also our moisture in the soil being higher than other parts of Texas.

I have been getting emails and calls about whether we will have Christmas trees this year.  Yes, this assumes of course that the woods do not burn and the creeks do not rise.   I will try to keep everyone updated here.  

A month ago, I mentioned a storm snapped our flag pole.  Well, I did not look up when I inspected the broken flag pole lying on the ground.  This wind also ripped two steel roof panels off of the hay shed.  I found this damage when the following day after hearing banging by the hay shed.  

A replacement flag pole has been found.  I suspect having some steel roof panels in the barn left over from previous projects.  Now it is just a matter of having the time to make the repairs.  As in the past, the Christmas trees get priority and other projects follow as time permits.      

 August 15, 2011

A severe thunderstorm with massive lightning and reported 60-70 mph wind gusts passed over the farm.  The only damage found was our flag pole was snapped.  The good news is that we also received an inch of ground soaking beautiful rain!!  

August 1, 2011

The Texas drought continues.  In the last six weeks, we have received less than an inch of rain in passing showers.

The good news is that our Christmas trees planted last year and before still appear to be unaffected by this lack of rain.  They are getting the needed water from the clay.  With the Virginia pines, they are even starting to put out their normal summer growth and may even require their normal  late August shearing.   The Leyland cypress are in their normal summer "hibernation" period believed caused by the heat.  Suspect they will have a spurt of growth when we get rain and cooler weather.

We did have a tropical system, Don, which had the potential for breaking the drought.  However, it went in land by Corpus Christie or several hundred miles away.   Amazingly, it provide little or no rain even in that area!!!  With the peak of hurricane season still a month away, we realistically will have many more systems to worry about and one or more may provide us with the needed drought breaking rain.   

This Texas drought is mainly affecting our seedlings.  With our seedlings planted six months ago., we are seeing above normal losses currently estimated at 40-50%.  We normally plan on a 20-30% loss.   I will get an accurate count after we get our first heavy rains breaking this drought.

This seedling loss is of minor concern and will be covered by additional seedlings planted next year.  All this means is that in four to five years, our customers will have less eight foot trees but more six foot and also more nine foot and over Christmas trees to select from.   In reality,  most will not even notice the difference since they tend to look for the perfect family tree whether it is a six , seven , eight foot or larger Christmas tree.  

Christmas trees are not like shallow rooted corn, wheat or hay.  These crops have died in the fields with total losses expected.  

Our major concern is the need for the media to develop a news worthy crisis for the Christmas season.  This Texas drought could be used by the media to show one dead Christmas tree and thereby suggest all Christmas trees have died!  

Well, this is not the situation at Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm and I suspect nearly all other Texas Christmas tree farms.  We have been through droughts in the past, lost seedlings, but always had more than enough quality and beautiful Christmas trees for families to enjoy.  To put this in perspective, we have lost more seedlings in wet years than we have in this record setting drought year.  Christmas trees in the right soil can handle lack of rain.

The creeks at Mill Hollow are still running.  It appears maze hill is a source of springs for these creeks.  Many, many years ago, we were told by old timers that our creeks will always run.  They appear to be right.  This also confirms my suspicion that the earliest settlers picked this area because of the assured supply of clean cold spring water.  

One of my many projects is to have a water fountain at the flag pole.  This way, our customers could taste real "country" water.  (Our well is in the same aquifer as these springs.)   The major problem is time and too many projects!   

The amazing part of this drought is how critters and birds are moving around.  The feral hogs are literally running and trying to feed in the creeks.   The snakes have also moved down to the creeks.  The vultures, hawks and even the crows appear to have followed them.  Offsetting this movement of the snakes is squirrels moving in to the area around the Christmas tree fields.  They were normally down by the creeks.  Suspect with their snake and bird predators now feeding in the creek area, they have moved up the hill to where it is relatively safe.   So far, no mice or rats seen.  However, we do routinely see one of our red foxes.  He may be feeding on the squirrels.   

The major question still remaining is where did the coyotes go?  It has been months since we have heard them. I suspect they are still around.  But, they may not even need to hunt , howl and chase as a pack with all of their food located around the few running creeks.

June 24,2011

Over this last week, major forest fires were breaking out all over East Texas.  They were being started by everything from a hot wheel bearing on a trailer to a dropped charcoal from a BBQ pit.  With the very high winds and dry grass and brush, fire fighters were having a very hard time to do much more than evacuate homes in the paths of the three nearby major forest fires.  The last I heard was thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of acres burned along with 30 homes destroyed .  One forest fire was in Grimes county to the southwest of the farm.  Another was north of Huntsville or northwest of the farm and the biggest in acres was northeast of the farm near to Groveton.  None of these forest fires were a concern for our farm with the strong winds being from the south.     

The combination of a Gulf of Mexico weather system and a cold front stalled in North Texas gave us 2 1/4 of slow rain on Wednesday, June 22.  Most of the  forested areas burning got at least 1 1/2 inches of rain.  There was no run off .  More importantly, this soaking rain and lack of wind helped the fire fighters get control of the forest fires.  It also temporarily reduced the threat of new forest fires.  

The bad news is that most of East Texas will again become a "tinder box" by this upcoming Fourth of July weekend .   We will again be at the farm with our water hoses out and ready and water spray tanks on the tractor and ATV just in case some careless act starts a forest fire up wind from our farm.  

Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm is surrounded by major East Texas forests.  A forest fire is a real concern for us.  If you notice, we keep a 60-100 foot border around the Christmas trees mowed very close to the ground.  All buildings have no brush nearby and are also routinely mowed.  These mowed areas are our firebreaks if a forest fire should occur and move towards the farm.  

Will that save us?  It really depends on the wind.   A very strong wind can carry hot ash and start fires far down wind.  This was the problem they were experiencing controlling these recent Texas forest fires.  Strong gusty winds would carry embers past fire lines and start new fires.  

The farm has been threatened before by a forest fire.  It was  several years ago and when we had families up at the farm during our October Outing.  The forest fire was a couple of miles to the south and being pushed by a south wind.  A local volunteer fire chief was at the farm and in contact with the Texas Forest Service and volunteer fire departments on the status of the fire.  Obviously if it jumped their fire lines, he would have given the order to evacuate our customers.  The next line of defense would realistically be our fields! !   The fire fighting lines held and the fire was controlled.  

Please do not discard a lighted cigarette, set off fireworks or do anything else which could lead to a grass/forest fire.   No forest fires are spreading in East Texas and would like to keep it that way until we get rain and eliminate this possible disaster.   

June 14, 2011

How is the extreme Texas drought affecting the Christmas trees?  This is the big question many of our customers have been asking us.  For those who are unfamiliar with this Texas drought, the farm and Texas is running roughly 13 inches less rain than as normal from the first of the year to now .  In summary, we did not receive our historic spring rains.  

With summer now here, we are dependent on rain from passing showers, a tropical storm or even a hurricane.  To put this 13 inch deficit in perspective, it is equivalent to two tropical storms or one and a half hurricanes.  The Gulf of Mexico water temperatures is also above normal .  This makes it more receptive to the formation of either hurricanes or tropical storms.  A direct category 5 hurricane hit on our farm is one of those events which would put us out of business.  Because of this I must also question which is worse, this drought or a storm which will break this drought!  

This is not the first drought we have been through.  We have learned from past severe droughts what can be done, what to worry about and what to just ignore.  

Specifically, the Christmas trees will survive a drought including this one.  They have deep roots.  The farm has sand over clay.  The clay holds the water and keeps moisture going to the Christmas trees.  The field grass may be brown like the Hill Country in August but the Christmas trees will be a typical dark green and surviving.  

The year and older Virginia pine Christmas trees are growing as expected.  They are putting out new growth and filling in the shape one expects from a Christmas tree.  The loses from this drought is limited to the Virginia pine Christmas tree seedlings planted in January.  The stress of planting, lack of rain and their root structure many times not yet in the water containing clay has caused an estimated 10-15 percent to die already.  The normal rule of thumb for us is to double this amount to account for what will die before the fall rains come.  

We do not worry about this Virginia pine seedling loss of 20 to 30 percent.  I look at this as offsetting last year's nearly 100% survival!  What dies this year will just be replanted next year with new seedlings.  As I mentioned in previous blogs, Christmas tree farmers, like all farmers, are optimists.  

The much demanded Leyland cypress  are surviving but unlike the Virginia pine are not really growing.  When  it is hot, they appear to go into hibernation.  The good news is that we have not had any Leyland cypress tree a year or older die.  

The major problem with this drought and the Leyland cypress is we will not have as many 8 foot and over this selling season.  This is not because of the drought.  It is because the Leyland cypress generally grow in the spring when it is cool and again the fall when it is cool.  With this much publicized drought, we have also been hot many weeks earlier than as normal.  Besides no spring rains, we did not have the normal cool spring weather.  Our rule of thumb is that an eight foot Leyland cypress will in one year should become a much demanded 10 foot Leyland.  If we get only a cool fall, this eight foot Leyland will at best be only a nine foot tree at selling time.  For some, it may mean getting a big and beautiful Virginia pine Christmas tree this year.  We have many 10 foot and taller and beautiful Virginia pine Christmas trees available.   

We have been watering this years planting of Leyland cypress seedlings and mulching some.  We experiment at the farm.  I am not sure if watering and/or mulching is worth the effort with our method of planting.  Some seedlings have been mulched and watered, some have been just watered and a few have been left to survive as best as they can.  Next fall I will see if this mulching and watering is worth the effort based on their survival rate.  As of now, mulching appears to be of more benefit than watering but it is admittedly early to draw a definite conclusion.

I am nearly 70 percent done with the Christmas tree shaping process which we call shearing.  This is where I put on my back a 40 pound motor and 8 foot reciprocating steel blade and walk around each and every Christmas tree once and give it the "Christmas tree Shape".  I do this in late May and early June and again in August.  Shearing Christmas trees  one time at Mill Hollow is walking roughly 75 miles with the 40 pound shearing machine on my back.  This means I  have less than 25 miles left!!!

Why do I do this?  This is enjoyable exercise for me. It really feels good to get up early in the morning, shear for 2-3 hours, become sweaty and dirty and  then be able to look with pride on what I have accomplished.  There is no machine in a health club which could provide me with this exercise and satisfaction.  Oh yes, I also do not have any guilt about finishing off the day with a beer or two and even having a big bowl of ice cream as dessert.   

March 15, 2011

This year we had a very dry winter.  Showers do occur but infrequent and normally no more than 1/2 inch of rain.  This is not unusual.  We have seen these abnormal dry winter weather conditions in the past.  All it means, we must adjust our planting cycle to compensate and to match the forecast of rain.  Seedlings have a better chance of survival if the ground is damp when planted and hopefully with additional rain soon after.

We planted all of our Virginia pine seedlings in early January between two of these 1/2 inch showers.  We will go back and replant the seedlings which did not make it again in late March.  

The Leyland cypress require more moisture in order to survive and replanting is not an option here.  You have only one shot at planting.  We held off on planting in hopes we would get at least one shower of 1 inch or more of rain to provide the needed moisture.  This did not occur by early March.  Therefore with time running out, we went to Plan B.  This involves using water hoses and wetting the planting spots before planting the seedlings.  This requires time and effort.  With plenty of winter rains, we can normally plant 400 Leyland cypress seedlings in one day.  With this required watering, we are limited to only 100 seedlings per day and must still hope for rain.  

We completed planting the Leyland cypress seedlings last week using plan B.  We also left in place the water hoses just in case this lack of rain continues or gets worse  through the spring and even into the summer.     

Some may wonder why our Leyland cypress Christmas trees cost more than a Virginia pine.  The reason is the need to do "extra" care when  preparing the planting spots, plant the seedlings, protecting the trees from air borne fungi and shearing the trees.  This "extra" care leads to a more beautiful Leyland cypress Christmas tree but does also take more of my time.   

We have also used the last few months to find a replacement swing tree and also to provide our customers with a real flushing toilet.  (We will still have the port-a-potties down wind from the food area for those in need of a quick relief.)  

We found a replacement tree swing and also a climbing tree on our farm next to the exit road going down the hill.  Also, we have a very small vacant building with a flushing toilet on this hill.  The problem was we also had underbrush and what seemed like a "zillion"  heart stopping snakes.  The unusually thick underbrush and vines kept our local hawks, vultures and crows from controlling the snakes.  

Snakes are inactive during the cold weather.  So, we cleared the brush and opened up this area for the birds.  Amazingly, I did not get bit once or even seen a snake during this clearing!!  With the brush cleared, we will be using the tractor with a brush hog to keep any future undergrowth under control.   I have notice our hawk and also the vultures are spending more time in the trees and flying over this area looking for a quick lunch.  The snake problem appears to have been resolved.    

Down the hill from this snake infested area, we also found an area suitable for planting another field of Leyland cypress.  This field was also cleared of brush and the Leyland cypress seedlings planted.  Because only the exploring can find this field, we are calling it the "Hidden Field".  We still need to place the snoot high electric fence around the Hidden Field to keep the curious and root grubbing wild pigs out of this area.   With this dry weather making the ground hard, this is not the time to pound in fence posts.  I will be waiting for a gully washer or two to soften the ground before putting in this fence.  The good news is that the wild pigs also can not dig up hard ground.  They like I am just waiting for the rains.    

 January 10, 2011

The 2010 selling season is over.  I must thank all of our customers and workers who made this one of the most enjoyable seasons ever.  We really do enjoy having all of you over at the Christmas tree farm and leaving with a Mill Hollow Christmas tree.  This really makes the sweat, aches and pains, and worry worth it.    

This fall has been extremely dry relative to previous years.  We have received showers but no soaking rains.  We need these soaking rains to plant our seedlings.  Well, the long anticipated rains came yesterday with very cold weather to follow.  We will start our planting of Christmas tree seedlings in a few days when it warms up a little.  

We are adding a new Leyland cypress Christmas tree field to the farm.  We are calling it the "Hidden Field".  This is  because you will have a very difficult time finding it if you do not know where to look!!  This field is our attempt to increase the number of Leyland cypress Christmas trees over eight foot in height.  We should have trees from this field in five years or so.  

You may wonder where is the "hidden field"?  Well, it is in the valley over the hill east of the existing Christmas tree fields.  If you exist the farm down the steep road to the bottom where the vineyard is located, the "hidden field" is to your right (east) beyond the hill and trees in a hidden valley.   This area has not historically been open to our customers to explore.

Between the existing Christmas tree fields and the "hidden field", we also have a small house in bad need of repair!!  We are wondering what to do with this building.  It does have running water and a bathroom.  For this reason, we want to keep it as a potential restroom for those who do not like the blue "port-a-potties" .  It may be a little walk, but the toilet does flush.

We are looking at options for this building.  It ranges from a garage for my MGB, a work shop , a storage area for files, to maybe even fixing it up so our customers could stay the night.  If you have any ideas, do let us know.   

We will be adding trails in the "hidden field" area hopefully by this next selling season.  We are currently looking for interesting attractions for these trails.  We did have a huge tree identified of the same size and probable age as the fallen swing tree.  However, it also fell this last year!  If we can find a suitable oak tree, this may be were we put the tree swings.   Other options include a "B"tree.