West Virginia tree farmers keep tradition alive—one evergreen at a time.

Every year around this time, thousands of West Virginians bundle up to hike the hills before they deck the halls. Whether you find your perfect Christmas tree as part of an all-day adventure in the woods or on a quick detour at a local tree lot, there are dozens of tree farmers across the Mountain State who will lend a hand, or a saw.

In Fairmont, farm owner Lucille Martin cares for 100 acres of trees with help from a small staff , including granddaughter Kara, the fourth generation at Mt. Zion Nursery. Lucille estimates Mt. Zion sold more than 500 trees last year. Business doesn’t quite boom the way it used to, but many people still carry on the tradition of cutting down or digging up trees. New families show up every year, sometimes as early as mid-November. “People remember growing up and going to the farm, getting a tree, bringing their kids,” Lucille says.

Dennis Moore has been picking out trees with his family at Mt. Zion for 30 years. “Since 1981, we’ve been buying trees and replanting them on our farm out in Barrackville,” he says. “We’ve always gone out with the kids to pick them when they were growing up. Now the kids are older, and some of them are carrying that on with their own kids.”

He says the outings were something the family looked forward to each year, and he and his wife always let their three kids choose. They’d start talking about the kind of tree they wanted at dinner the night before. “Sometimes they’d argue back and forth. ‘I like this one. I like this one.’ Some of the trees have been extremely fat.”

Those days, the family made an afternoon out of it. “We’d have lunch some place, spend the afternoon picking out the tree, and then come back and have soup and hot chocolate,” he says.

Finding that must-have tree is a memorable experience at the Marion County farm, as holiday thrill seekers venture out across the property—a map of all of the trees in hand—following signs toward the “choose and cut” trees. Some start early—picnicking and spending hours up on the hill scouring for the best of the best. Coffee, candy, stickers, and crafts are a welcome reward when families return. Pre-cut trees are also for sale on the lot. Mt. Zion provides saws (and can help with the cutting) as well as a pole to measure trees, as excited families oft en lose sight of how big their living rooms are compared to the forest (think Christmas Vacation). Staff can bale the trees, too, to make transporting them home easier.

But not everyone loves a real tree. Each year, approximately 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S., according to the National Christmas Tree Association, compared to as many as 38 million artificial trees. Fake trees hit many stores in October and are mostly made overseas from petroleum products and plastic, says Larry May, a tree farmer in the eastern panhandle. Larry says buying real trees sustains the farm labor workforce and is good for the environment. Real Christmas trees are a renewable resource that provide oxygen and can be recycled quickly—decomposed and returned to the environment.

Ever since he was a boy, Larry has had a real tree to celebrate the holidays. For the May family, part of Christmas has always been about remembering what’s real and important in life. “For me, I can feel an aura of the tree. I picture where that tree has been for the last 10 years—all of the wildlife and the wind and the snow and the hail—everything that tree has gone through. It’s the feeling of something real,” he says. “You can’t get that from a piece of plastic.”

When Larry was growing up, artificial trees were hard to find. “If you did have one, it was aluminum,” he says.

Since 1969, Larry has run May Tree Enterprises with his wife, Mary, on Highway 42 just outside of Maysville, but he fears his 150-acre farm is part of a dying tradition. “There aren’t that many Christmas tree farmers. Most of us are over 50 years old, probably over 60,” he says.

In Fairmont, Lucille says her family has been selling Christmas trees since the ’50s, when her father-in-law started the business. He was one of the original founders of the West Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association. She remembers going to a local grocery store as a little girl and buying trees that had no needles. That’s part of the reason they started the business—there were few places to get good trees. But farming requires patience. “In the Christmas tree growing business, you plant them and you have to wait eight or 10 years for them to grow, or some take longer,” Lucille says.

Dozens of tree farms like Mt. Zion and May Tree have been inspected and certified by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to sell trees for the holidays. Larry sells more than 300 chooseand- cut trees a year, but he used to sell many more. Now he relies on wholesale revenue across the state and from the Washington, D.C., area to keep business going. He says, “We need to harvest at least 5,000 trees annually to make payroll of two full-time employees, plus keep up with the costs of growing trees. Due to the dwindling markets, this may not be possible for much longer.”

This holiday season, Larry hopes you’ll think twice about stuffing your shopping cart with a fake tree from one of the big box stores. Instead, he hopes you’ll help to revive the tradition, pile your family in the vehicle, and head to the hills, in search of the most perfect tree.

For hours and more information on Mt. Zion, visit http://mtzionnursery.com/

May Tree is open from November 24th through December 23
Friday, 1 to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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