November 2007
Featured Articles

Family Tradition Nurtures Chilton Co. Tree Farm

 
  With the Christmas trees in the background, (L-R) Chesley Neely, Ginger Duncan, Chad Duncan, and Michael Duncan holding Ethan extend an invitation to everyone to come by Neely Farms to select a Christmas tree. Neely Farms, located in Thorsby, opens November 23.
By Ashley Smith

The holiday seasons prove to be a time of tradition — a special time of the year to spend with family and friends. From the traditional Thanksgiving meal to the holiday season with trees, stockings and presents to the celebration where the outgoing year is remembered as the New Year begins, traditions tend to plan our days. Holiday traditions are important to all, and they have always been particularly meaningful to Ginger Neely Duncan of Chilton County. She and her brother Carl grew up in a family full of traditions that are still quite memorable and meaningful to her today.

"When we were growing up, Mama and Daddy always took us to a Christmas tree farm where we could search and search to find our very own Christmas tree," shared Ginger. "After much discussion and deciding on just the right tree, we excitedly cut the tree."

The tradition of choosing and cutting their own Christmas tree developed into a family tradition she and her husband Michael now enjoy with their two sons, Chad and Ethan. Separated only by years, the annual event seems to still offer the same excitement and charm as it did to Ginger as a young child.

 
Be on the lookout for these two “elves” or helpers at the Christmas tree farm, (L-R) Ethan and Chad Duncan. They pose for a quick picture by last year’s plantings.  
In an effort to continue sharing family traditions, with her own family as well as other families, Ginger searched for ways to grow such traditions. After some research, she introduced the idea of turning family property into a Christmas tree farm. No stranger to farm life (Ginger’s father, Chesley Neely, is a Chilton County cattle farmer), she realized the endeavor would take the time and effort of several family members.

"We are a close family and have always enjoyed doing things together," said Ginger. "Of course, we really did not know what all was involved! However, our family supports one another and encouraged me to pursue the establishment of a tree farm."

It has been four years since Ginger first introduced her idea of a Christmas tree farm. Neely Farms Choose and Cut Christmas Trees is a family-owned and operated Christmas tree farm located on 30 acres in Chilton County. Since the idea took root in 2004, more than 2,000 Virginia pines have been planted on property once used for grazing cattle. Each year, the Neelys and Duncans plant approximately 500 trees in order to ensure the farm is a sustainable operation. The tree planting crew that first year consisted of Ginger’s husband Michael, her mom and dad, Yolanda and Chesley Neely, her brother Carl Neely and his wife Lacey. The crew has changed a little over the past few years. Ginger’s mom, Yolanda, passed away in 2005 from cancer; the same year Ginger gave birth to Ethan. Ginger feels her mom is with her in spirit and "if she were here, she would be right in the middle of it."

 
  Michael Duncan inspects new growth on one of their Virginia pines. Throughout the year, he trims and shears the trees to produce the typcial taper and form of Christmas trees.
Just as families change and grow, so do the trees. They must be nurtured all along including individual shearing and trimming. Shearing helps the tree to develop the traditional uniform characteristic shape and taper. Shearing also promotes the formation of more buds and therefore the development of twigs and branches (perfect for hanging ornaments!). Michael handles the shearing and trimming. With plans to expand the Christmas trees to cover more acres in the future, this family farm is truly a growing operation!

By recently joining the Southern Christmas Tree Association (SCTA), Ginger hopes to nurture the business even more. A regional organization, the SCTA includes Christmas tree growers from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The SCTA serves as an excellent source of information for growers about the real tree industry, from seedling to sale.

"Attending the fall meeting in September gave us the opportunity to meet lots of other growers who have been through similar ups and downs as we have in establishing our Christmas tree farm," said Ginger.

She feels it will be particularly beneficial to have this resource of experienced individuals to call upon as she works to grow the family business.

Another excellent resource for Neely Farms has been the Mid-State Farmers Cooperative in Clanton. Her dad has been a customer of the Co-op for years as a cattle farmer; now as a Christmas tree grower. Ginger finds the store to be high on her list for providing materials and recommendations. She purchases fertilizer and other supplies needed for the young trees at the store. For example, Christmas trees require fertilizer to create the optimal conditions necessary for good tree growth and quality. Fertilizing the trees improves the color, vigor and growth rates of the trees.

Benefits of Real Alabama Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are more than just the celebration of life during the holidays; they can be a source of life after it! Discover the recyclable, renewable benefits of real Christmas trees. Purchasing your real tree at one of Alabama’s nearly 100 Christmas tree farms improves the economic industry of the state.

Real Christmas trees (unlike artificial ones which are not biodegradable and will remain in landfills for centuries after they are disposed) can give something back to the environment in several ways:

• Christmas trees are biodegradable - the trunk and branches can be used as mulch for gardens, parks or in animal stalls. The mulch provides a protective barrier for the roots of other plants and vegetation while preventing weeds from growing. The mulch then decomposes, providing the nutrients plants need to thrive.

• Mulching programs can be found in a number of communities. Check with your local Department of Public Works for information.

• Christmas trees make effective sand and soil erosion barriers, especially at beaches and on river beds.

• Sunk into private fish ponds, trees make excellent refuge and feeding area for fish.

• Before recycling, bagged Christmas trees can be used to make bird feeders, adding color and animation to the winter garden. Orange slices, suet and seed on the tree attract birds. They will come for the food and stay for the shelter in the branches.

• Christmas tree farms replenish the environment’s oxygen supply, serve as wildlife habitat, increase soil stability and provide a valuable and aesthetically pleasing improvement to the land.

For more information on the benefits of real Christmas trees, visit: www.abundantforests.org/pr_christmas.html.
 
After four growing seasons and much anticipation, excitement and hard work, Neely Farms Choose and Cut Christmas Trees will celebrate its grand opening. As the only Christmas tree farm in Chilton County, the family farm will surely be a success. For families looking for traditional holiday celebrations, include a visit to a local Christmas tree farm. Children of all ages enjoy having the chance to choose their own tree! And the time spent with family will be a tradition cherished for years to come.

Ashley Smith is a freelance writer from Russell County.