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2008

Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer

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November 4, 2008

The annual October Outing has been completed with perfect weather on both of the weekends.  We were able to clean up most of the debris and do the needed repairs from Hurricane Ike.  However a few days before the first weekend of October Outing, we did find a support beam on the tree house was cracked but not broke.  With time running out, we were forced to put up "Closed for Repairs" sign on the tree house.  As many of our customers already know, this tree house is very popular and especially with young girls.  

We have completed the  tree house repairs  and it will be opened for our Choose and Cut.  The repairs involved putting in additional supports of the cracked beam, a new adjacent support beam and, just to make sure, a vertical ground post to further support the tree house.  

Why did this beam crack when it went through Hurricane Rita with no problems?  In closer inspection, the oak tree grew over one end of this support beam .   This makes for a very strong connection but also opens up the possibility that something must give if the tree house moves in one direction and the supporting tree branches in an other direction.  The tree house was designed to "float" and not to be attached to the tree so high winds would cause the tree house platform to move independently of the supporting branches.  Obviously, the tree house did not float as designed and the beam was cracked.

One of these days, I would like to rebuild the tree house into a slightly different structure.  Currently, it is one level.  I believe an internal ladder to a second level  or "look out" would further create a setting of what a tree house should be.  

When will this be done?  It is on the list but the list is very, very long!   I am also a realist in that you should worry if you have already completed everything on your "to do" list.  If your list is completed, you are either not dreaming enough on other things to do or to focused on the list and not enjoying the other pleasures of life.  As some would say, Mill Hollow is a passion which is a level or two above being a business!  

Mill Hollow Annual Invitational Down Hill Tire Rolling Contest was held the first weekend of the October Outing.  A new winner was crowned this year.  Jarred Hughes was the winner of this Invitational tire roll with an amazing  distance on his second roll.  This was the first year for Jared to compete.  Jared and his brother have been coming to Mill Hollow since they were "knee high" to the scarecrow.  Obviously, they have practiced a lot and knew the peculiarities of the tire rolling course.  Of course, I suspect Jared is also very lucky!  Obviously, we suspect Jarred will defend his title next year!       

Breaking news:  The unprecedented three year winner of this tire roll contest, Alice, failed to make it a four year record.  Alice had the perfect roll to do it but hit the "orange ball" marking the winning roll of Justin, her fiancee.  Instead of bouncing off to the side and being the winning roll, it hit the orange ball straight on and bounced backwards and was left as another losing tire roll.  Too bad!  

September 20, 2008

The one event every Christmas tree farm on the US Gulf Coast dreads is the warning that a hurricane is in the Gulf of Mexico and heading your way!  The combination of wet ground and extremely high winds have the potential of laying your Christmas trees flat on the ground.  

In early September, we watched first hurricane Gustav as it entered the Gulf  and had a sigh of relief when it turned and made landfall in western Louisiana.  It was too far away to affect Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm.  

Well, a few days later, a hurricane called Ike made the scene.  From the early days with the storm still over a week away and still in the Caribbean, the forecasted track appeared to be heading right to Houston and consequently could affect Mill Hollow.  This hurricane became more of a concern when its trip over Cuba appeared to demolish everything in its path.  To make it worse, some forecasters thought it could strengthen to a hurricane category 3 and possibly 4 when it enters the Gulf of Mexico warm waters still ahead.  The concern factor raised a notch or two when the forecasters where still looking at a Houston area landfall!   A houston/Galveston landfall means that both our house in Houston and the farm would be in the path of the storm.

 When a hurricane is heading your way, it is time to act and not to wait.  We put away everything at our house in Houston and froze a lot of water in the refrigerator.  We then went to the farm and did the same.  At this point in time, it was a matter of just waiting and hoping hurricane Ike will make a totally unexpected or unpredicted turn away from Houston.  

The forecasters appeared to be right with every update on the hurricane and its expected landfall.  The real surprise was that it was still a high category 2 storm but with a storm surge characteristic for a category 4.  The storm surge is the wall of water pushed in front of the hurricane as it makes landfall.  It appeared this surge could be 20 feet or more.  This is a concern if your house is located less than 20 feet or less above high tide sea level.  For our Houston house and for the farm, this surge would not affect us.  Our major concern was where the eye would make landfall and how strong the winds would be.

The storm made landfall at Galveston and as predicted moved right up through Houston and to the farm.  We rode out the storm at the farm and watched and listened as the winds increased in intensity.  Soon after, we had the very strong and horizontal penetrating rain.  At 4:00 AM, we finally lost electricity and could only guess what was happening in the darkness outside.  This insecurity was enhanced by the winds howling, tree branches breaking and flying through the wind  and some hitting the house.  The wind driven rain was making its way around windows and through the cracks around a door.  

Soon after daylight, the winds became calm and the rain diminished.  This was the eye passing over and a chance to see what damage was done during the night.  All we found was a lot of branches and needles in the picnic area, a piece of tin off of the hay shed and a huge oak tree fallen in the north field.  The Christmas trees were all standing straight.  Within a half hour or so, the winds again returned and the back wall of the eye passed over the farm.  Again, the winds howled, the house shook and the trees swayed.  By late afternoon, we were able to again go out and check for damage.  Again, the Christmas trees were standing straight and no other new wind damage could be seen.  What was really amazing is that our tree house was not damaged at all by these terrific winds.

The next morning, we started clean up and completed this task in two days except for the fallen oak tree.  This tree will be cut up for fire wood after the first of the year.  This is to allow it to dry naturally and for all of the leaves to drop and make the cutting process easier and safer.

This huge oak tree will be missed.  It provided us shade from the hot Texas sun when working in the adjacent fields.  Even the local critters will miss this tree.  The crows, hawks and vultures used this very tall tree to reconnoiter the terrain and hopefully find a tasty morsel scampering below.

With very minor damage at the farm, we are going ahead as planned with our October Outing event the last two weekends in October.   We do expect large crowds since stress times like this show families the need to get out and do things together.  So, please RSVP so we will have enough hot dogs for all to enjoy.

I would also like to thank the number of people who came out to the farm , by email and telephone to check on our well being and also the well being of the Christmas trees.  I am hoping to get back to those who left email messages but with the work ahead and just now getting electricity and consequently the internet, I may miss a few and hopefully you will understand!   

July 4, 2008

The early summer shearing of the Christmas trees is over.  I am done until late August of walking the estimated 75 miles with a  forty five pound shearing machine on my back.  All of this walking to give the Christmas trees their first trim of the year.  With day temperatures up in the mid to high 90's, it was a tough year for the first shearing.  Normally, I get a few days of relatively cooler weather as a cold front will pass through and make this job a little more bearable.  Well, it did not happen this year.  

The second shearing which starts in August is the hard one.  This is because August in Texas it is hot and humid without exception.  The temperature highs will be in the  90's and even low 100's and very humid!  Maybe this first shearing is a way to get me ready for the tough hot humid August weather.  

The Christmas trees look great this year.  We have had sufficient rains and excellent survival on the seedlings planted.  This year we are anticipating having a lot of Christmas trees in the 8 to 12 foot range including the high demanded Leyland Cypress.  However, the monster trees over 12 foot in height will still be very limited!  Realistically, we only have a handful of customers who each year get one of these heavy, awkward and memory making trees.  If you must have one, I would strongly urge reserving it during our October Outing the last two weekends in October.   

Each year, we pick a few tasks to upgrade our operation.  This year it is repairing our "infrastructure"!  Yes, a Christmas tree farm has infrastructure.  It is the sales house, the tractor, the water lines, the barn. the road and even the pig fence around the field to mention a few.  

This spring, we concentrated on painting the house.  As many of you noticed this last Christmas, the house looked pretty  dilapidated.  The brown paint on the house was faded, some  siding boards were primed white and others where just plain natural wood.  This color variation was from the need to remove and replace any rotting boards and scrapping any loose twenty year old peeling paint.  

The painting is complete.  However, we do have a few spots where we must still repair the boards.  As usual, I ran out of siding before the repairs were complete.  Instead of holding up the painting, we decided to go ahead and paint when the weather was "relatively cool" and do the remaining few wood repairs during the hot summer and maybe early in the fall.      

As a few of our customers noticed, we never painted the top three feet of the chimney when the house was painted twenty years ago.  The reason was my ladder was three feet too short!  I have now a new longer ladder and even the top of the chimney is painted.   We have also changed the color of the house to keep it cooler during the summer.  The house is now a light gold/greenish tan with dark brown trim.  We have already replaced the screens.  Still to be completed and realistically may be done next year is to plaster the inside wall board cracks and then paint.  

I am sure many of you noticed the rapid rise in gasoline and diesel prices.  This brings back memories of 1973.  The major difference is that this time around, I am not being called back to active army duty!   (In 1973, I was called back to active military duty for desert warfare "training " during the Arab oil boycott at Fort Irwin, California in the middle of the Mojave Desert.)  Who says, age and gray hair does not have its advantages.  

Could history be repeating itself?  What I see happening now brings back memories of the early 70's and 80's.  Back then, we also had  a war, the Vietnam war, corresponding major government spending deficits, a weak dollar and economy and rapidly rising fuel prices due to middle east instability. .  The saying I remember the most was President Johnson saying this country was strong enough to have "guns and butter".  He just did not say how much we would have to pay for the butter!  I suspect another Texan, Phil Gramm will also be remembered for his current comments on today's economy.   Too paraphrase it, it is something like it is all in your imagination!   

With the uncertainty of the economy and high gasoline prices, many families are passing up on their vacations and trips to grandma.  I urge all of our customer to keep in mind that a trip to Mill Hollow is a memory making trip for all involved and is affordable.  Make this a family event and include everyone from the toddlers to Grandma and Grandpa!  We welcome everyone and want them all to have a Mill Hollow memory making experience with their family.  With out doubt, these memories are just long lasting as the trip to Disney or another location and more important affordable during these weak economic times.    

Mill Hollow has always been an affordable and memorable day trip for many of our customers.  We will be gearing up the farm to make sure that this threat of inflation does not adversely affect us or our customer's visit.  We will still have the free hot dogs and buns but will give our customers the option of sliced bread or buns.  (Sliced bread is a lot cheaper and some young kids love it and hot dogs.)  We will look for other items to sell like ice cream and maybe roast your own sausages to help offset the increasing cost of the free food.  As always, feel free to bring your own marshmallows, drinks etc. and not buy from us.  Money is important but not important to us as your family enjoying the visit and telling your friends and neighbors about us.  

Mill Hollow is home to many critters.  Well, this spring we have a few additional new members of the critter family who call Mill Hollow home.  We had a fawn born in the horse pen and routinely see the Mom and even the fawn in the horse pen area.  You may wonder why a doe would keep her fawn in a horse pen when there are thousands of acres of forest in the area.  Well, the horse pen is surrounded by electric fence to keep out the wondering and destructive hogs. Feral hogs will kill a fawn.  In addition, the doe has plenty of grass in the adjacent Christmas tree fields to keep her strength up and to provide milk for the growing fawn.  

The local buzzards have also set up residency in the attic of the haunted house and believed to be raising one or possibly two chicks.  This is the second time we have seen nesting in the attic in the last couple of years.  We suspect it is the same pair.   I have seen three vultures soaring near the old house.  I suspect the chick has grown and flew the coop.     

My 1968 red MGB is running, again!  It took me a few months of figuring out what the problem was but eventually through trial and error it was found.  For those of you mechanically minded, the problem was varnish on the points!  This is what happens when you let a car sit for years with out running.

This year, we and the local critters will enjoy a bumper crop of muscadine grapes from the vineyard.  I am not sure what the split will be between the critters and I since this is a very busy time for us.  In addition, I still have not bottled the wine made from last year's crop!  One option I am considering is put a sign on SH 190 for our neighbors to pick the grapes for their own use.  Maybe instead of paying for the grapes, maybe we could work out a deal of jelly or wine instead!        

February 12, 2008

The 2007 Christmas tree selling season is now history.  One of the most common questions we get is how are sales?  Well, this year sales were excellent with many new and also returning customers .  However, it was a very tough selling season.  

We were either wet or overwhelmed nearly every day during the selling season!  Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we had rain on at least one day of every weekend we were open.  As many of you know, a Christmas tree farm is no fun when it is raining.  We actually encourage our customers to postpone their visit till weekend days when the sun is shining and the farm can be enjoyed.  Usually, we have only one rain day during the four weekends we are open.  This year for the first time in over twenty years, we had a rain on all four weekends we were open.

Some farms do close when the weather is bad.  We do not close since we do have customers who must come even in the rain and get their tree because of work or family schedules.  If you are willing to find your tree in the rain, we will be open and even cut it for you.  This is why on rain days we (especially our very good workers) were wet.  

Now for the overwhelmed part of the selling season.  When it rains, we get very few families.  The next day when the sun is shining, everyone and their brother shows up!  This is why many of you may have been forced to park in the "far reaches" of the farm .  To make matters worse, many also experienced lines at the tree baling, cleaning or the cashier.  This is what we call be ing overwhelmed.   I must thank our customers for being very understanding of what these unique weather conditions will do.  Now for the good news, we did have enough hot dogs during most of the afternoon.

We did notice this year that many of our customers recognized the environmental benefit of getting a real Christmas tree at Mill Hollow.  We also noticed that we are continuing to get what we refer to as the second generation of customers.  These customers came as children, enjoyed Mill Hollow and are now returning with their own children in tow.  This is really what makes us feel good that we are doing something which future generations will remember and hopefully carry on.  This is what we call leaving your mark on society!

The Christmas supplies have been put away , the equipment covered , the rutted up roads smoothed over and the picnic area has been cleaned.  We have also already planted the Virginia pine and Leyland cypress seedlings.  For the next couple of weeks, we can enjoy the farm.

The woodpeckers are attacking the house!  As many of you noticed, this last fall, I replaced many of the boards that the woodpeckers "pecked" and created holes.  The plan is to paint the house now that the seedlings have been planted.  

Well, the woodpeckers are now going after the new pine boards.  To make it worse, they like to peck on the boards, real, real early in the morning.  This is not the alarm clock I want.  I prefer the sound of percolating coffee and the warm morning sun peeking through the east window.

I am not a hunter and have no desire to be a hunter.  The army ruined any fascination I might have had of blasting a woodpecker to oblivion.  Considering how fast they fly, I doubt if this option would even work unless I shot them on the wood siding.  Then, I would have my own shell holes to fix!  

I had to find another option so did a little research.  I found out that many birds are afraid of owls.  Well, we do have owls at the farm but they tend to be down by the creek and not on top of the hill.  Every now and then we will see one on the concrete bridge in the evening.   I know of no way to convince this bridge sitting owl to come up the hill early in the morning.    

I had to consider other options.  I went to our local Walmart and found a simple and more importantly cheap possible solution.  They had a real looking plastic owl.  Even Jude, our petting dog, wondered why it would not fly when he jumped after it!  This owl is now on the porch in plain view of any visiting and hungry woodpecker.  

This time of the year is when we tend to sit outside and enjoy our morning cup of coffee.  What makes this really enjoyable, is seeing all of the wildlife, including woodpeckers, who call Mill Hollow home.  This last week, we were visited by one huge doe and a smaller doe (possibly her fawn).  These two deer  munched their way across our Christmas tree field grass.  We also have hawks and vultures soaring and gliding in the winds and many times just clearing the Christmas trees before they pick up another updraft.  It is too early for snakes to be out.  With the hawks, I am wondering if we even have any snakes left in the Christmas tree field.

The crows are still around but do appear to be spending less time on top of the hill.  Again, I think this is related to a territory squabble they got into with the hawks last year.  These crows are interesting to watch.  Everything we do at the farm, appears to get their noisy inspection.  Several years ago, I planted a new field of Christmas trees.  Well, the crows had to pull out several of the seedlings before apparently giving their stamp of approval and left the remaining ones alone to grow.  They even had to check out the pine boards I replaced on the house.

Jude, our petting dog, also likes to explore and find anything unusual.  Well, one of our younger customers lost their two socks.  (We gave up long time ago trying to figure out the clothing being left in the Christmas tree fields.)  Jude has found them and considers them his property now!  I suspect he likes the smell.  He proudly prances around with them and keeps them with his precious ball.  Obviously, these socks will not make it into our lost and found.   Jude is a believer in "finders, keepers" especially with smelly items.   If you lost the socks, you can try to convince Jude to give up this precious find when you make it up to the farm this year.