Darren Nicholson slides into the driver’s seat of a mud-spattered four-wheeler and putters along a dirt road. The Great Smoky Mountains loom in the background, and the early November sun fills up the bowl of Maggie Valley. Passing two silos, a log cabin and a row of empty trailers, Nicholson moves his free hand to grip the wheel as he clambers up a steep, leaf-littered hill.
A self-proclaimed mountain man, Nicholson and his four-wheeler look one slick leaf pile away from sliding back down to the gravel road. But with a supportive pat on the dash and a honeyed “c’mon, baby,” Nicholson reaches the overlook of Boyd Mountain Christmas Tree Farm in Waynesville.
Nicholson — a former banker in Asheville and a full-time bluegrass musician — works seasonally on a 100-year-old Fraser fir farm. After sitting in an office for 10 years, Nicholson joined the Boyd family staff in 2013. Now, his office is 130 acres, and his tender is saplings.
“This beats the hell out of a bank,” Nicholson said, grinning.
Nicholson slowly picks his way over the rolling land, driving past rows of Christmas trees, organized in five-by-five rows grouped by age. At the top of each hill, he can see the sun glinting off the trees’ tags like tinsel, which mark price and size.
He knows there are 5,000 trees because he tagged each one by hand.
Stopping next to a tree, he reaches out to pat its branches. They spring under his touch, and not a single needle drops. The underside of the branch is silvery, while the top is a deep, hearty green.
“Fraser fir is the Cadillac of the Christmas tree,” he says.
A caravan of Christmas trees
For many, Christmas trees go up as soon as jack-o’-lanterns are packed away. Families pile into cars, crank Bing Crosby and head to the mountains to find their perfect tree. While mom and dad argue about whether a 9-foot-tree will fit through the front door, kids line up for hot cider and pet farm animals. “We’re ready!” dad will yell, and the kids come running to see the tree fall.
Everyone piles back into the car and watches through the sunroof as the tree is tied down. On any given weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you can drive east to west on Interstate 40 and see cars with trees strapped to the roofs. A caravan of Christmas trees connects farmers and families across the state.
North Carolina is the native home to Fraser fir. A combination of ideal elevation, soil and climate in the western part of the state helps the tree thrive.
“Even if you have a bad Fraser fir for a Christmas tree, it’s still likely better than the next best Christmas tree,” said Justin Whitehill, a researcher for N.C. State University’s Christmas tree genetics program.
It’s a modern cash crop, too. North Carolina ranks second in the country for Christmas tree production, and Fraser fir represents over 90% of all the Christmas trees grown in North Carolina.
The industry directly employs over 100,000 workers in the United States. In North Carolina, it brings income to small mountain towns and local businesses that benefit from agriculture-driven tourism.
“When you buy a real tree, you support that family, that farm and the goods and services (you buy) in their local communities,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association.
“Especially during the season, there’s a big boost to the local economy,” said Jennifer Greene, executive director for the N.C. Christmas Tree Association. “As far as restaurants, shops, hotels, motels, it brings up a lot of people to the area for choose-and-cut season.”
An old-fashioned Christmas
Normally, Santa Claus would be making a stop at Boyd Mountain, and visitors would be enticed by the smell of baked goods and refreshments. But because of the pandemic, owner Dan Boyd said the farm will only sell trees this year.
“It’s gonna be a green, old-fashioned Christmas,” said Betsy Boyd, the farm’s matriarch.
Betsy and Dan’s son, David, now handles the day-to-day operations on the farm.
Both generations live on the farm in cabins they built. Dan’s family already owned the land, but he purchased it from his uncles and father in 1972 after completing dental school. He brought Betsy with him, who he met in college on a blind date set up by Avon ladies who sold more than makeup that day.
In 1984, the first Fraser fir was planted and other seedlings were planted each year afterward. Seven years later, that first crop was harvested.
O’Connor said tree farms adapted like the Boyds’ did to include extras — Santa Claus, gift shops, pre-made wreaths and lodging right on site. These all help sustain a primarily agricultural business that David Boyd said fewer young generations choose to inherit.
Every year, around this time, “Christmas tree shortage” peppers Facebook feeds and holiday small talk, O’Connor said.
“There’s a scarcity of trees,” Dan Boyd said, “because a lot of the older farmers have gotten out of the business. During the recession, they weren’t planting trees. Now, the younger people don’t want to do it because of the expense to start with. They got to wait seven, eight years before they actually get a return.”
Greene said growing Christmas trees is a decades-long commitment. Unlike an ear of corn, a Fraser fir grows slowly, only a foot per year. Most people want a 6- or 7-foot tall tree, Nicholson said.
Farmers also commit to tending to trees year-round. Nicholson and others spray for pests, trim branches, clear underbrush and ward off hungry elk and deer. It’s a babysitting job, but Nicholson said that’s what goes into offering a premium tree.
Choosing tree a family tradition
Steve Rich and his family come from Aiken, S.C., every year to Boyd Mountain. Rich grew up with an artificial tree, but his wife’s father insisted the young couple begin their holidays together with a real one.
“Since ’79, that’s 41 years ago,” Rich said, “we’ve had a real tree for Christmas every year since then.” Now, Rich brings his children and grandchildren every year to choose a tree.
Even 21 years after Boyd Mountain opened for choose-and-cut, new families stumble upon the farm.
Janice and Kirby Moore were staying with their children and grandchildren not far from the Boyds’ farm. They came from Nags Head to see the fall foliage and left with two Christmas trees strapped to the roofs of their minivans.
As the adults squatted under the branches and razored a bow saw against the trunk, their young children darted in and out of Nicholson’s carefully planted rows, trading sand between their toes for muddy knees and pine-sapped hair.
Nicholson sat in the four-wheeler at the foot of the hill, ready to haul the trees to the “shop” where they’d be wrapped in twine. A fluffy fir would get pulled trunk-first through a red, conical contraption, catching red floss in its branches as it went. It came out skinny and compact, like a fragrant pipe cleaner, and aerodynamic for the Moores’ seven-hour drive east.
Nicholson said part of the fun is seeing where his trees go. Many go to homes, but some of the biggest trees are bought by towns for tree-lighting ceremonies. Others are sold wholesale to mom-and-pop businesses that set up tents in parking lots or along roadsides elsewhere in the state.
“We brought a tree home about five years ago,” O’Connor, of the tree association, said. “We didn’t know until we started decorating that there was a bird nest in it. Well, we saved that nest and we put that nest on each tree year after year. You never get a story like that — a family memory like that — when dad slaps up the plastic tree.”
There’s a deep evangelism in Christmas tree country. In western North Carolina, Fraser firs grow on a moral high ground. Choosing live trees over plastic ones is not just symbolic, but sustainable.
Whitehill, the N.C. State researcher, said the carbon footprint left by PVC and steel trees — after taking into account production, packaging and shipping — significantly outlives that of live trees. Most fake trees are imported from China.
Even when neighborhood sidewalks are lined with discarded trees come January, many are recycled locally into mulch, wild animal habitats or anti-erosion buffers for beach dunes.
But the Boyds and Nicholson are confident. They’ll keep growing and sharing the tradition of live trees for as long as people will come. And even if they don’t, there’s something special about waking up every day in a personal forest of Christmas trees.
“I love them, and I love for other people to enjoy them,” Nicholson said.