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2009

Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer

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November 11, 2009

I hate advertisers who insult ones intelligence.  I am sure others feel this way .  Today, I went to Home Depot and Lowes to buy items for the Christmas tree farm.  When I went past the fake tree sections in both stores, I saw a General Electric pre-lighted fake tree with a large General Electric sign saying "just cut"!  This tree was made in China and appeared to be polyvinylchloride plastic and metal.  If it was cut, it had to have been on some factory assembly line.  

If others are like me, I would not buy anything which works off of consumer's ignorance.  Even though this  use of the words "just cut" is probably legal since they applied for a trademark on this "name", being legal does not make it right.  This especially the case since the words "just cut and fresh cut" has been used for decades at retail lots to show the real trees were recently cut and fresh.

For General Electric to do this type of marketing, I must judge their competence and especially their marketing expertise.  This reminds me, I need to check to see if I own an General Electric stock and, if yes, maybe selling it.

If you want to get a reaction out of the store employees, just ask them how many days ago was this GE fake tree cut, where and how much water it will take up!!!  All legitimate questions of a "just cut" real Christmas tree.  

November 3, 2009

The October Outing, 2009, is history and will be remembered for beautiful weather, very energetic children and families enjoy the company of each other.  Again, we are seeing more and more of the second generation coming up to the farm.  They came up as children and are now coming up as adults and many times with a spouse and their own children in tow.  This appears to confirm that memories of Mill Hollow are a very powerful part of life and  passed on to upcoming generations.  Gee, maybe we are doing something right!  

We are getting the farm ready for the Choose and Cut period.  This involves mainly checking out the equipment, setting up the school education area and repairing whatever was broken during the October Outing.  This also includes getting our last "snail" and "e" mailing ready to go.  As a reminder, do tell others about us.  This is how we get new customers to replace the ones who move to parts unknown.  

We did have our usual October problem with honey bees.  They would magically appear with the first can of open soft drink and disappear at night.  Apparently, they are getting that last bit of sugar for the cooler winter months.  These bees did not sting and appeared to be very accommodating to everyone around them so long as they got their sugar fix.  If anyone has a solution in keeping them away from the picnic area when sugar is all over the place, I would like to know!

Now for the bad news, we did have a vandalism problem.  A bench was on the wooden bridge so one could sit and enjoy the wind going through the leaves and the babbling of the creek below.  Someone(s) took this heavy bench and tossed it into the creek below.  Well, the rains came and washed it down the creek.  We suspect it is now floating in downstream in Lake Livingston.  

As typical of vandalism, the culprit usually gets away with this.  I also suspect he will be the first one to complain when prices are raised to offset the cost of this vandalism.  Obviously, our customers have freedom to roam the trails and fields of the farm.  We do ask our customers to watch and stop anyone who is thinking or doing anything of a destructive nature.  Vandalism will cost your family both in entertainment and also in money whether at Mill Hollow or any here else.     

October 7, 2009

The rains have come.  The Christmas trees are looking the best we have seen possibly in the twenty five years of growing them.  We have found from years of growing the Christmas trees, a "little" drought actually helps the trees.  We will have more die in years of excessive rains than in years when the rain is limited during the summer months.  The reason for this is that we have a water holding clay below the top soil sand.  The trees when forced by the lack of rain will send its roots into this clay area.  We have also found from soil analysis, this clay also contains a lot of minerals necessary for plant growth.  

More importantly and this year was no exception, we get rain showers passing over the farm.  With the southeast winds during summer, our rain is more dependent on what is occurring in the Port Arthur area and not the Houston or areas to the west of Mill Hollow.

We are in our final push getting the word out about our farm being ready for the annual October Outing which is the last two weekends in October.  The mailing have already gone out.  Next week, it is the email reminders.  Remember, we do need RSVP's so we will have enough hot dogs with the fixin's for everyone.

I am still looking for a suitable tree swing to replace the one which has collapsed.  Hopefully, this will be done before the October Outing.  I have two problems.  The most obvious is find a tree with big enough branches and with the right shape.  The other is getting the swing chains out from under the fallen tree!! 

What we have found at Mill Hollow is that it is a very unique place with abundant wildlife and insects calling it home.  I try to share some of what we have seen either during our morning coffee or evening beer/wine with all of you one these pages.  However, I am trying to keep this area more for the major events and not for the first sighting of a robin or a wandering deer.  

Therefore, I have set up a Twitter page and also a Facebook page for what we see, hear and maybe an opinion or two on what is happening in the world.   In order to find us on Twitter, just search for Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm.  We will show up in the results.  Alternative, our Twitter ID is "@MillHollowTexas".  For Facebook, just search for me by name.

August 7, 2009

We just had a oak tree hit the dust!  It was not because of the drought or the heat.  It was just because it was old, very old!  The tree was a Schumard red oak.  Many of you will know it as the swing tree with four swings on it huge branches.

The Tree Swing Tree - Before

The Tree Swing Tree - After

The tree fell during a typical Texas summer shower with rain of two inches.  There did not appear to be any wind with this gully washer.  The tree appeared to be healthy with a very excellent crop of leaves with none falling even during this hot dry weather.  The tree split approximately 12 feet above the ground where two major branches separated from the trunk.  As you can see from the breaking news picture, the trunk and even the two major branches are hollow.  Based on what we have been told by locals, this is common for this tree.   Like a pipe, being hollow does not necessarily weaken a tree.  It can still bend with the wind as we seen during the recent Hurricane Ike.  Interestingly, this tree did not loose any noticeable amount of branches during this hurricane.  

This starting me thinking on how big and how old is this tree?  The circumference or distance (roughly chest high) around this tree was sixteen feet and one inch.  I check the Texas Forest Service for the Record Trees to see how it compares.  Well, it was one inch bigger than the listed record Schumard red oak in Dallas.  I then went to the internet and found these trees can live up to five hundred years with the US record have a circumference of 20 feet!!

Again, just how old was this tree.  With the hollow core, I could not just count the rings in the trunk.  Therefore, I needed to go back to my math!  (This is the engineer in me.)  From the circumference, I calculated the radius to be 30 3/4 inches.  From counting the rings on smaller non-hollow branches and measuring the radius, I found that the growth rate  was some where around 0.0652 to 0.0694 inches per year. Dividing the trunk radius with this growth rate, I found that the tree was somewhere between 443-471 years old and possibly older.  (I had trouble counting the rings close to the bark.)  This could have added on another five or more years.   

I found this tree age to be amazing.  When this tree was an acorn and sprouting, these ring calculations suggest the year was some where between 1538 and 1566 and possibly older.  Too put this date in perspective,  Columbus arrived in 1492.  The Pilgrims did not land in Plymouth Rock until 1620!   

I suspect this tree survived the lumbering period because it was already too big and too beautiful to cut.  The hollow core also eliminated any quality lumber from this tree.  I also suspect that any explorers,  settlers, travelers and maybe even Sam Houston rested below the beautiful canopy of leaves provided by this tree.   This is the last large specimen of a Schumard oak I have found in these woods.  We do have other big trees but not this big, not a Schumard oak and not this beautiful.  

We will be slowly dismantling this huge oak tree but do plan on leaving the trunk for posterity.  History has recorded workers finding old coins from the Bonny and Clyde days in the hollow of another old tree.  Well, we will also be checking this out since this oak tree was also near a vacant house when Bonny and Clyde were around here and rumored to have stayed in these vacant houses.  

 We will miss our swing tree.  We also suspect that many of the critters which enjoyed the branches, relaxed in the shade or had a home in the hollow will also miss it.  Time to go and find another swing tree so the up coming generations know what it is like to swing on a real swing tree.

It has also been brought to my attention that many do not know what my 1968 MGB roadster looks like.  As Marge puts it, it takes grey hair to be able to recall this car as it traveled the roads and many times broke down on the road's shoulders.  So, here is a picture.

 

It is not a powerful car with an engine horsepower of only 94 horse power.  However, it is fun to drive and can really take the corners.  The center of gravity on these cars are very low and somewhat like a go-kart.  They are also fun if you are driving on the freeway and love to inspect the undercarriage of semi-truck trailers!  Like motor cycles, many in big cars and pick up trucks do not even see you whether you are in front, along side or even behind!  

June 25, 2009

The first Christmas tree shearing of the year has been completed.  The Christmas trees look great and should not be adversely affected by the current very high temperatures and Texas wide drought.   This drought should not affect the growing or even the quality of Christmas trees at Mill Hollow.  We have a underlying layer of clay which holds moisture for the trees to grow even if it does not rain for weeks or even for months.  The grass may die but the trees historically have not had a problems surviving and flourishing.  

We have also seen historically that the rains will come!!   A rain shortage in East Texas can be made up in  one gully washer rain storm.  

As you may read below, we had problems with pigs getting into the Christmas tree field.  Well, we have not seen them in the field since the electric fence has been repaired.  More interestingly, they have even moved out of the adjacent forests.  

With this poor economy, I do know that many in the area are on the look out for pigs and consequently very low fat and delicious pork chops and bacon for the table.   I am not sure what has caused the pigs to move on but do think hunting is only one of the reasons.  

I believe we are seeing Mother Nature at work.  This spring, we had an over abundance of rabbits.  I suspect they have found out that eating fresh grass in the Christmas tree field is more appealing than trying to find vegetation in the  pine straw covered adjacent forests.  With the cover of  Christmas trees, they scoot from tree to tree and come out from under just to eat the adjacent grass.   We do have a family of hawks living in the adjacent tall pine trees which look at these rabbits as being a nice lunch.  

In addition, we now have a pack of coyotes routinely roaming outside and probably even in side the Christmas tree field in the evenings and mornings.   For coyotes, rabbits are a delicacy!  

The arrival of the coyote pack appears to coincide with the departure of the feral hogs from the area.  These pigs are smart.  The probably have figured out that these wondering "dogs" love rabbit but are too small to feast on a grown pig.  However, they probably will not pass up on a delicious piglet!  Consequently, time to move on.  Survival of the species is at stake.  

We continually find it very interesting how Mill Hollow fits into the scheme of Mother nature as being a major food source for the local animals.  This year, we again have seen a new fawn and its mother eating grass in the Christmas tree field.  We suspect the doe was the one who  gave birth to the fawn last year in the electric fenced horse pen.  As I mentioned, we are seeing a lot of rabbits.  Right now, we are also seeing an influx of squirrels and not sure why.  Possible theory is that the hawks and vultures have reduced the snake population.  Snakes and especially the tree climbing rat snake will feed on squirrels.  Again, these hawks will have another food source, squirrels, to offset any decline in the rabbit population with the coyotes.  What will we see next?     

Mill Hollow Breaking News  June 22, 2009 Update

Another fawn has been seen in the vicinity of Rebal's horse pen and believed to be a sibling to the fawn born last year.       

May 15, 2009

We have not uploaded these pages to our server since last winter since it is very slow.  This is not unusual since we use a telephone dial-up connection and not high speed internet.    In past recessions, we seen this slow down in our dial-up connection also happen.   When times get tough and house hold budgets get cut, high speed internet goes!   For some, you revert back to the tried and true telephone connection and save $20 per month.  

The major event at the farm is that the pigs are getting into the Christmas tree fields.  We keep pigs out of the fields through the use of a snoot high electric fence.  It is solar powered with a battery back up for the night.  Last year, we had one pig which would hold up the electric wire  with his snoot and scoot under.  Apparently, the hair on the snoot would allow him to do this with minimal shock. I resorted to random fire crackers to keep him on his side of the fence.  

A few weeks ago, we started getting more pigs coming into the field through the electric fence. I checked out the electric fence voltage and it was working.   The wires were not touching any vegetation and being grounded out.  I then started to wonder if the saying "Monkey see, Monkey do" might apply.  This one pig last year has figured out how to get past the electric fence and has shared it with his brothers, sisters, cousins and aunts and uncles!

The fire crackers came out and the pig rifle was cleaned.  I started taking a nightly walk at dusk around the farm.  Well, I did scare the living day lights out of a few pigs but they were all able to run away.  I am a good shot.  However, these pigs come out only when it is dark, they are black and can really move!  Under these conditions, a dead pig probably means it died of a heart attack from the sound of my rifle shot.

Well, the pigs still came.   Being an engineer, I started wondering if I was not missing something.  Back to the solar charger, I noticed the frequency of the spark was higher when the sun was shining and lower when the sun was setting.  This suggested something was wrong since the battery should be smoothing these sparks through out the day and night.  Well, I soon found out that the sealed battery would not hold a charge for more than a hour.  This meant that the electric fence worked perfectly during the day and evening when the pigs were not around.  At late night and early morning when the pigs are roaming, the electric fence was nothing more than a snoot high wire!  

I replaced the solar charger with one working off of electricity.  In the three nights since, the pigs have come to the fence but did not cross.  Hopefully, this pig problem is history.

I am sure many wonder what I do when times are quiet and the pigs keep to the woods.  Well, I finally have my 1968 MGB convertible running in nearly new condition.  It is not a frame up reconstruction.  All I have done is over the years replaced anything that did not work!  This way, I have fun of tooling around the neighborhood and avoid the frustration of snapped bolts.  The next project is to build a building for the MGB at the farm so I can go tooling around those country roads.

January 25, 2009

The 2008 selling season is now history.  It did confirm a suspicion we have been harboring for the many years of being in the business.  It has to do with Murphy's law.  For those of you in the non-technical area, Murphy's law is that the unexpected will happen at the most inopportune time.  Oh yes, there are many variations of this law which more or less say the same thing.  For Mill Hollow, the unexpected will occur when we have families up at the farm.    

As some of our customers know, we lost our water well on the third weekend of operation.  The PVC pipe a couple of feet above the well pump split.  This happened late on the preceding Friday of our third selling weekend or December 13 and 14.  As you all know, the service repair industry does not work weekends.  (When was the last time you were able to get your car fixed on a Saturday or Sunday?)  Christmas tree farms must be open on weekends!  The earliest we could get the well pump and piping pulled was the following Monday.  The well and split pipe is approximately 150 to 200 feet below ground and requires a vertical wench truck to lift it up and out.  Repairs were made and the well placed back into service.  The real bad news occurred two weeks later, the 15 year old well pump died!  Apparently, the split pipe caused it to continually pump.  The additional heat generated is believed to have eventually weakened the motor windings and caused them to short out.  Again, it happened in the "everyone is off period " between Christmas Day and New Years.  We again had the pump pulled and a new pump installed.    

We did have clean food serving items and a limited amount of clean well water in our pressure tank for the first day of this third selling weekend.  We were able to provide the free hot dogs on Saturday, December 13,.  However, we did not have any water to clean the food utensils.  Consequently on Sunday, December 14, we did not have free hot dogs with the fixin's available for our customers.   The safety of our food is more important to us than having free food available to our customers.  We did not want to chance the possibility of your family getting sick.  We did bring in clean water for hand washing on both days but were unable to clean the port-a-potties and the sales office restroom.

We did get a couple of raised eyebrows but hope you all understood.  We will provide you with the best experience possible.  However, we can not control the unexpected or have the leverage to force someone too work weekends!  

This loss of the well did point up that in our nearly 25 years, we have experienced the uncontrolled or unexpected mainly during the times we have customers at the farm!  For example,  we have seen the following occur during our October Outing or Choose and Cut days over the last 25 years.  

1.  We had both port-a-potties floors break the same day.  

2.  We had the Gully Washer of 1994 (This was the storm which flooded all roads from Houston) start over our farm as the last customers were leaving our October Outing.  If they would have dilly-dally a few minutes more, we would have had them overnight!

3.  We had a forest fire move towards the farm during our first big weekend after Thanksgiving.  The local fire department was fighting the fire and keeping us informed if we needed to evacuate all of our  customers.

4.  We lost electricity on our biggest selling weekend when a substation went down.  No cleaning or use of the cash register was possible.  

5.  We had rain last year every weekend .  To make matters worse, we had a couple of "cowboy" pickup trucks who spun their way up the hill the first rainy day, created ruts which caught the rain water and made it a muddy mess for everyone else that day and on the following weekends!

6.   We had our insulated water pipes freeze on one very cold selling day and did not have water for several hours that morning.

7.  We had a tornado pass over the farm the evening of an October Outing day and damaged buildings in the area but for reasons unknown left us untouched.

8.    Denny got the flue on a big weekend and this is after getting the flue shot!

Believe it or not, we do not have these type of events during the non-selling season.  This is why I consider Murphy's law to be involved.   However, we do consider these events to be learning lessons.  If something unexpected happens, we go with back up plans and hope our customers understand.  We, like you, do not like the inconvenience of something different but have learned to "go with the flow" and hope you our customers understand.   

The one event we are still waiting for is a choose and cut snow storm.  Obviously, this would prevent customers from coming but oh would it be so nice to see everything covered in white!  Maybe, I would even take my skis out of the barn and make a run down one of the hills before retiring back to the house and a warm fire with hot spiced wine.

Mill Hollow Breaking News  January 25, 2009

The fawn which was born in Rebal's horse pen behind the metal barn last year and her mother survived the hunting season and are making routine forays into our Christmas tree fields in the early morning hours to feed and browse.