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2005

Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer

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November 17, 2005

Today, we went to pick up Rebal and take her to the farm.  As you may recall, she was not feeling well during September and early October.  We were hoping that the green grass of the pasture would solve her problems.  Well, Marge and I took one look at her and decided that this horse needs to enjoy her remaining days.  She is 30 years old and equivalent to a human of 90 years.  With the October problems, she did loose weight and still has not put it back on.  Hopefully, additional time and more green grass and oats will solve this problem.  Considering her very advanced age, we were also concerned about the traumatic experience of being trailered up to the farm than being by herself at the farm.  As you may know, nights in the country with coyotes scrounging for food can be quite scary and possibly even to a much bigger but very old horse.  

Rebal is "officially" retired and on a pension of green pasture, oats and hay!  Rebal has given thousands of children a horse ride the nearly fifteen years we have used her at the farm.  Now we believe, she deserves some time to just munch on the grass and enjoy the companionship of other aged horses.  Currently, she is in a pasture with two other "over the hill" horses.  I would like to say they gallop all over the pasture.  In truth, it is more like a fast trot!  However, they do get along quite well and do verbally communicate with each other.  I suspect they are comparing their aches and pains.   

Many children do check our web site.  With all of the children who first experienced a ride on Rebal and wondering about her health, we will keep you updated on her health here in the "Newsletter" and "Breaking News".      

November 10,2005

A new flag pole with a Texas flag now waves on top of the Mill Hollow hill.  The original pole was destroyed by the winds of Hurricane Rita.  This new pole is a tall straight pine tree from our woods and hopefully will stand tall until the next big wind.  I believe there is something very relaxing about sitting on the hill and hearing and seeing the flag fluttering in the breeze.  Being in the Army, I also appreciated the use of a flag to provide identity to you and your operation.      

The only other infrastructure damage yet to be repaired is the TV antenna.  Like the flag pole, the winds from Hurricane Rita broke off the thines.  Now we are forced to watch TV with the old reliable rabbit ears.  Obviously with the closest TV stations 75 miles or more away, we are very limited in what we can watch and dependent on weather bouncing the signal to us.  Some nights  we can get the signals from the Houston stations, sometimes the Beaumont station, sometimes the Lufkin station, some times the Bryan station and even sometimes no stations at all!   

Do we miss TV?  Well, we spent fifteen years without TV at the farm and enjoyed sitting out at night an admiring the stars, listening to the sounds of the night and even telling stories.   The answer is no.  We have again rediscovered how nice it is to enjoy the quiet of the night at Mill Hollow by sitting on the hill and taking in the beauty of a East Texas night.   

October 2, 2005

The lights came on and we are going ahead with the October Outing the last two weeks of this month.  Hopefully, we will have the place ready.  If time does not allow and a few items are not in place or if a few branches or trees are still down, I suspect our customers will understand.    

Now, I need to tell you about the big loss from Hurricane Rita.  It was not the barn, the house, the haunted house or even the tree house.  It was my 2005 harvest of grapes and resulting wine.    This is probably the biggest loss I am having to deal with.  Last year, I did not have the time to pick the grapes and make the wine.  The crows had a feast in the vineyard.

This year, I picked the grapes and then froze them per a suggestion I got from a winery owner in Canada.  This way, I could make the wine when times permits later on.  (In Canada, they make excellent  "ice wine" with frozen grapes.) Well, I picked the grapes and immediately froze him in or freezer.   I was actually thinking how this could be my Texas Ice Wine.  

Suddenly, Hurricane Rita was on the horizon and heading straight for Texas.  My alternatives were to keep the grapes frozen with a couple of gallons of frozen water in case we lost electricity or start making the wine.  Well, evacuating with Marge, our daughter Sarah, her dog and of course Jude in a Honda did not leave any room for the fermenting wine!  Therefore, I decided to keep the grapes frozen for a while longer and added another gallon of frozen water.  Well, the hurricane went to the east of us and the house was not destroyed and the freezer with the frozen grapes was intact.  The problem was no electricity to keep the grapes frozen and I was in Houston 75 miles from them!  

When I finally made back to the farm seven days later and electricity finally came on after that, the house was probably 95 degrees and the freezer the same.  When checking out the grapes, they had this white fuzzy stuff growing on them.  Something tells me that is not the fermentation I want.  So, I dumped them outside for the crows to enjoy.  They will eat anything!  

There is always next year.  

September 27, 2005

Mill Hollow survived Hurricane Rita with winds of 120 MPH reported in the area.   Major damage was found with over 100 Christmas trees of all sizes bent over or laid on the ground, one snapped 48 inch diameter huge oak tree , the loss of a major branch on the swing tree, broken pine tree branches of all sizes and very minor damages to the buildings infrastructure.   Our experimental six foot sunflowers are now at a height of two feet and blooming!  Amazingly, the very vulnerable tree house was undamaged and still sitting high in a pin oak tree.  

Mill Hollow will still have thousands of good looking Christmas trees which defied the wind  and did not bend for your family to select as their Christmas tree.  Hopefully, the trees bent over will be suitable for your family's wreath.  

We are still planning on having the October Outing if we can get electricity in the next week.  Please check this web site for status of getting the lights back on.  

Hurricane Rita was traumatic to us and suspect also to many of the families who enjoy Mill Hollow.  We believe this October Outing at Mill Hollow may be another step in putting this event behind and again being a family.  

With only three weeks remaining to October Outing and assuming electricity does return, we plan on the trails to be marked, the mazes to be open, the hay ride to again circle the Christmas tree fields, the horse and petting dog to do their things, and maybe even a witch at the haunted house and big foot roaming the trails.   Since time is limiting, this means your family will be able to see first hand the damage caused by Hurricane Rita.   Clean up will be minimal.  

We firmly believe all events in life do eventually lead to something good.  With Hurricane Rita , projections are that winter natural gas prices will set a record.  Well, one of the benefits of Hurricane Rita identified so far is having several years of premium fire wood oak to keep us warm!     

August 15, 2005

We have started our second shearing of the year.  We have had plenty of rain since early July and at the right time.  We continue to spray the Leyland cypress with fungicide and see no evidence of the fungus.  Maybe it works or maybe it is just too early.  Obviously, we are going to keep our monthly spray going and see what happens.  

We have planted Virginia pine and Afghanistan pine in the black gumbo soil by the tree swing and volley ball net area a couple of times over the twenty years we have been planting Christmas trees, .  Based on how super fast grass would grow in this area, we figured a Christmas tree should also do great.  Well, the outcome was usually the same.  The trees died either right off or struggled and died their second year.  Last year, we planted Leyland cypress, Japanese cedar and Arizona cypress to see how long they would survive.  Well, they surprised us and did quite well.  The Leyland cypress did surprisingly well with nearly 100% survival on the test plot.

This year, we expanded the planting of Leyland cypress in this black gumbo ground.   Well, we had 100% survival  even with the early summer drought and no irrigation!  

This success with Leylands means we have to make some decisions.  When it comes down to a choice of keeping the play area here or planting Leyland cypress demanded by many of our customers, we must go with the Leyland cypress.  Over the next two years, we are going to move the volley ball area, tires, frisbees, football throwing and ball batting activities to the back hill were the three grass mazes are located.  Obviously, the tree swing will stay!  It does mean a little more of a walk.  But , I figure exercise is good for family especially if Mom can take home a beautiful Leyland cypress!  

This year we are also experimenting with sunflowers.  These are not your ordinary yellow sunflowers.  These are suppose to be fall sunflowers with colors from yellow to brown and even  maroon!  The seeds have germinated.  Now it is a matter of seeing if we can grow sunflowers here in Texas in the fall of the year.  If successful, we will give our October Outing customers the option of selecting, cutting and buying their own sunflowers from this patch in October.  Maybe if we do not get a freeze, this may also be possible when we open the farm up to choose and cut after Thanksgiving.  

We experiment at Mill Hollow.  After all, this is the only way to find out if something works.  Obviously, we do have our failures.  We just move on and see what else we can try.   This is probably why our farm is different from many of the others in Texas and even in the United States.  After all, who else has a haunted house in December.  

July 4, 2005

Well, I just found out that this news letter is a "BLOG" and I am a "BLOGGER"!  No, it is not an insult.  It just means that I routinely publish for all to see what I think about any topic I choose and on subjects that peaves me.  Gee, besides being a Christmas tree farm, I am also an editor and publisher.  I guess I better start doing spell check!  

What is interesting, I have been doing this since 1999 when based on some bloggers' language and topics were probably in diapers.  I did notice that some of the blogs let others publish to their site with  their views and comments.  Well, I know how to that but am not that progressive yet.  After all, I am more interested in some topics and less in others.  If you have a specific feeling on a specific topic, then maybe you should start your own blog.  I guess this attitude is what happens when you have gray hair!   

We have completed our first Christmas tree shearing of two and now are in the process of what we call topping the big trees.  These big trees are what we use in our wreath making operation.  

With trees over 10 feet in height, I must use a battery powered backpack machine with a momentum driven rotary blade on a ten foot aluminium pole to shape the top of these taller trees.  This homemade contraption works and more importantly eliminates the need for ladders to get the tops of these taller trees.  From what I have observed in the Texas Christmas tree industry, most accidents have occurred when farmers fell off of these step ladders when pruning these big trees!   As in all farming, you create the equipment you need.  This admittedly cheap simple topping machine is the reason we have trees up to sixteen foot tall on the farm.  

A big tree out in the field means someone must have it.   Many of our customers have found out over the years, these big twelve to sixteen foot trees are no bargain and have returned to the more reasonable six to ten foot trees.  Others have found that these big trees can be mastered and does wonders for one's ego.  With these tall big trees, they can have the biggest  Christmas tree on the block, maybe in the whole subdivision and maybe in the entire city! Re-inforcing this pride, all of the neighborhood children will be watching and wishing it was there tree when  they see it arrive at your home.  As Marge would say, we men are nothing but grown kids with just bigger toys!

I must commend these customers who year after year take one of these big heavy trees.  First of all, these huge trees are not perfect.  They have been passed over from the time they were a merchantible five feet in height for some reason and most likely because they were not straight but growing crooked.   However, a few of our customers have figured out over the years the secrets to putting up these very tall trees and have shared them with us.  The most important  factors are

1.  The largest available high quality stand bolted on to a very thick sheet of plywood.

2.  Keep the netting on until the tree is standing straight

3.  Tieing the top of the tree to a second floor balcony or bolt in the wall with very strong green colored rope.

4.  Having a very tall step ladder for removing the netting and decorating and not expecting your wife to do it.

5.  Involving several neighbors to help you bring the tree in and lift the tree vertically into the stand.

6.  Place the tree in the center of the room and move all the furniture to another room.

7.  A very understanding wife when the tree does not quite make it up on the first try or falls when the cat finds out about this forest within the house.  

8.  Finally, preserverance and maybe an engineering degree at the Masters or Doctorate level.  If all fails, you do have an alternative.  Just cut the lower branches to make the sixteen foot tree a more easily handled eight foot tree!  It may not be the best looking tree but it is loaded with your sweat , memories and will definitely be the topic over Christmas dinner.   Oh yes, we will refund your money if request it! 

If you have not yet figured it out, a big tree is what men want and not what the wife considers ideal.  The best way to experience a very big tree in our opinion is in watching the Animal House movie Christmas Holidays with Chevy Chase.  You know the one, they cut the netting off and the branches expand out and break the windows of the room!  If you have not seen this movie, I would suggest seeing it.  It does put getting your Christmas tree into the memory category.   

We discard very few trees because they do not make a beautiful Christmas tree.  In reality, these  very big trees are what we save for our wreath making operation.  If you are worried about a "Charley Brown" tree not having a home, we would suggest  getting a beautiful fresh made wreath to go with the beautiful smaller Christmas tree.   For you men, a happy wife means peace at Christmas! 

We try not to waste anything at Mill Hollow.  Even the diseased and dead Christmas trees have a use.  We do cut them out and use them for erosion control in the gulleys and for providing wild life with a home in the tall trees surrounding the Christmas tree fields.  We believe this is one of the reasons we have so much wild life and birds on our farm.  

Oh yes, we finally got two inches of rain  this weekend after six weeks of nothing but dust dampening showers.  This unusual June lack of rain did not appear to cause any significant loss of seedlings.  Actually, I am hoping this drought may have reduce the fungi pressures on the Leyland cypress.  However, I will continue to spray fungicide with my new hurricane blowing sprayer.  I will be doing this not only because we dropped a bundle on the machine, but I am not sure what the "root cause" of this fungi attack.  

In the Christmas tree business, the cost of guessing and being wrong is hard on the bottom line.   We really have no one to help us out and must play it conservatively.  Big government does not give big handouts to us Christmas tree growers to throw at our problems.  This may be why all of us Texas Christmas tree growers are friends with each other.  We know what other have gone through so your children will remember Christmas and the Christmas tree.   

April 25, 2005

The trees have been planted and the fields have been mowed for the first time this year.  In three weeks time, the work starts with the first of our two yearly shearing of all the Christmas trees.  With the rains, we should have plenty of new growth to work with.  Hopefully, we will have a cold front come over each weekend I am shearing.  As Marge would say, you are a dreamer.  It will be hot, sunny and humid since this is Texas in late May.

As many of you know, we do have a fungi attacking the beautiful Leyland cypress Christmas trees.  We still do not know what is causing it but suspect the problem is related to the past three to four very wet years.  This fungi causes the branches of the trees to die starting from the ground up and eventually will kill the tree.  Rain causes not only Christmas trees to grow but fungi to prosper and multiply.  Right now, I could go for a very dry summer or even a drought.  

Since waiting for a drought to kill the fungi can be very costly, I did buy a mist blower to blast these Leyland cypress trees with fungicide and hope to kill this fungi.   This mist blower will put a blast of air and fungicide and water mix past the foliage of the Leyland cypress and onto the inner branches and trunk.  This mist blower is a very interesting machine.  With only water, it is like standing in a hurricane but only two feet wide.  

This fungicide spraying is an experiment for us, I am not sure if it will work but some farms believe it does or at least slows the fungi. We should know by next fall.  If not, we may be the only farm in Texas with a hurricane force wind for the kids to stand in!  

We have also planted last year Japanese cedar and this year Arizona cypress just in case a drought does not come, the fungi survives and thrives and Leyland cypress trees become memories.  I am just happy that the Virginia pine continue to thrive at our farm with no unusual insects or fungi attacking it-yet.  

We have also cut a new trail on the farm with the intentions of our customers taking one path to the back of the farm and another path for the return.  This new trail will follow a creek and does have several scenic spots.  If time permits, I am hoping to get appropriate signage made and maybe a bench or two for taking in the beauty of these areas.  

We have seen our first squirrel at the farm and it is black.  For the last three weekends, we have seen it scamper through the Christmas tree fields going between the various oak trees.  As is normal, the rat snakes are back and are they big.  I seen one in a Christmas tree which must have been the diameter of a juice bottle and probably three feet in length.  As many of you know, these rat snakes love rodents and squirrels too!  They will climb trees in order to get dinner.  Not only does this squirrel have to deal with tree climbing snakes, we also have chicken hawks and vultures circling the farm.  They also consider squirrels a meal and probably do not care if it is white, brown, black or if endangered.  We will just have to wait and see what happens.

We have not heard recently the red headed woodpecker who wakes us up in the mornings around 7:00 AM when it gets it breakfast from the siding on the house. In the past, it would disappear for a couple weeks but would always come back to the house.  I am sure it will return again.  In the country, who needs alarm clocks when Mother Nature takes care of waking you up.   

Marge and I also have been going over the options to keep the honor soft drink money safe from theft.  (With a very high percentage of customers returning year after year, I suspect last year's thief will also return!)    We still trust all but one of our customers and consequently want to keep the honor system going.  The best solution is to seal the money containers and not allow our customers to make change.  This is how the theft last year occurred in the change for a five was made using ten's and twenty's and not singles!  This will cause a little inconvenience for our customers especially if they need to go to the cashier for change.  We are still trying to figure out the best way to make change as needed in the food area and have several options.  Hopefully, you our customer will not be inconvenienced at all and will understand the changes we must make.