Where your Christmas tree comes from

November 19, 2012

West Jefferson, North Carolina

By Chris Keane

Having lived in North Carolina my entire life we have always bought a real Christmas tree every December. Growing Christmas trees in North Carolina is serious business with over 1,600 active growers working 25,000 acres.

The last few years I have wanted to make the trip up to the mountains to photograph a Christmas tree farm. This year I did some research and found out that the White House Christmas tree was coming from North Carolina. Since the White House Christmas tree program began in 1966 North Carolina has led the states, with trees being chosen 12 times from here. This year Peak Farms won the honor of having a tree selected for the White House.

This was a perfect opportunity for my long-awaited trip. On Saturday before dawn I left my house to spend the day in the mountains, first watching the White House tree being cut down, then to document North Carolina Christmas tree farming.

I had no idea what this type of farming would look like or what it might involve. Let me tell you, farming Christmas trees is hard work. I talked with one of the workers, who works year round as a contract employee for several farms in the area and he told me over the last two weeks he’s logged over 200 hours; he also told me that before the end of next week he’d log another 100 hours.

Before you can fire up the chainsaw someone has to walk the field and mark which trees will be cut down, and this isn’t as easy as it sounds. These fields are on the side of mountains, after all. After that a crew of about eight men haul all of their gear up the side of a mountain. This usually includes a tractor and trailer and another truck that pulls the bailer.

In the field two men set out- one with a chainsaw and another with a pole or stick. Their job is to cut down each of the marked trees. Another group of men will drag the trees to the side of the field. As this is going on another group takes the cut trees and bails them. Bailing refers to a process where twine is wrapped around the trees so they are easier to transport. After this the trees are loaded into the back of a trailer and driven to the loading yard. Back at the loading yard these trailers, full of as many as 600 trees, are off-loaded, counted and sorted.

What struck me as I photographed these men, who work from sunrise to sunset and sometimes beyond, was how many times after a Christmas tree was cut it was picked up and moved. I counted and from the time a Christmas tree was cut in the field to the time it was placed on a truck to go out to a tree lot or store, it was picked up no less than half a dozen times – that’s a lot of heavy lifting.

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