Dec. 15, 2011 - The Salado Christmas Tree Farm started in 1999, under the guiding hands of original owners Pete and Mavolyne Burnett, who planted the trees and started the traditions that have continued even after Susan and Bill Lawson bought the property in 2004. The Lawsons are putting the farm up for sale too, and they want the trees and traditions to continue, just as the Burnetts did when they sold the property to them.
The Burnetts planted 15 acres of mostly Afghanistan pine and Leyland cypress trees. Of the two trees, the Afghan pine has been especially adaptable to the extremes of Texas weather, genetically accustomed as it is to the extremes of Afghanistan weather. Families from Fort Hood with loved ones deployed in Afghanistan sometimes buy the hardy pines to feel a little closer to their loved ones stationed there. It's part of the reason the Lawsons have stayed with the Christmas trees, even if that wasn't part of the original plan.
"We still haven't figured out how we got in the Christmas tree business," Bill Lawson said recently at the farm in between morning field trips and the surge of customers that come after schools are dismissed for the day. "Bill and Mavolyne came back in November of that first year and we shadowed them, learning everything we could by watching them and helping. We might have thought we were getting into the Christmas tree business, but we're really in the people business."
Along with all the equipment it takes to run a Christmas tree farm and all the experience they could get from the Burnetts, part of the deal included families that have been buying their Christmas trees from the farm every December since the farm opened. Half of the farm's business comes from customers returning from previous years.
A certain amount of business comes from Fort Hood, where the Lawsons meet a lot families with a parent in various stages of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Some of them are about to be deployed for the first time or for another time, and some parents are just getting back and this will be the family's first Christmas together in years," he said. "Christmas is important to them, and the right Christmas tree is part of that."
The Lawsons also ship in Frazier firs from North Carolina and the "imports" are popular, generally selling out each year. About 100 or so sales come from the home-grown trees and of those, the Afghan pine has proven to be the hardiest during the dry times. It actually suffers more in wet years, as Lawson found out during a soggy 2007 when he was late spraying for fungus and lost about a thousand trees.
"The Leylands are very pretty, but if they don't get a lot of water, they turn yellow and you have to add iron and sulphur to get them balanced. The Afghans could care less," Lawson said.
An irrigation system installed by the Burnetts came with the farm when they bought it, and that source of water proved to be the difference this summer. Statewide, Christmas tree farms suffered extensive losses during one of the worst one-year droughts on record.
"The word we got from the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association early this summer was that if you have irrigation, use it. If not, do what you can to keep the trees alive," Lawson said. "We used our irrigation sparingly, really just enough to keep them alive. We lost about 10 or 15 small trees."
Aside from timely fungicide applications, Lawson battles tip moths, which hit the Afghan pines two or three times a year. The caterpillars browns the tips, which have to be clipped. He also uses an herbicide to help keep rows between trees clean. Finally, the trees are sheared a bit to give that nice, Christmas tree shape.
The trimmings are used to make wreaths. They also sell pine garlands and other holiday items at small country store. The first weekend after Thanksgiving and the following week are the busiest weekends, but business stays brisk during most of December. The mornings are usually given over to field trips where students get to take a hayride and play games, and maybe even learn a little bit about growing trees. The evenings and weekends are when the families come, some of them bringing along a new generation to enjoy the family tradition of buying a tree at the Salado Christmas Tree Farm.
"It's like a homecoming every Christmas," he said. "We'd like to see that tradition kept alive here."