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2013

Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer

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November 15, 2013

During the last couple of months, we had a major influx of rabbits into the Christmas tree field.  Suspect they knew the electric fence protected them from the coyotes who roam the forest and keep them in balance. The rabbits were getting so numerous,  I had one jump on the tractor when I was mowing the field.  

Like the wild hogs, coyotes avoid getting zapped  by the electric fence surround the Christmas tree fields and stay in the adjacent forest.  As fast as the rabbits appeared, they have now disappeared.  I suspect the local coyote pack figured out that when a free lunch is across the electric fence, they can jump the snoot high fence!

The wild hogs did major rooting in the forest between the wooden bridge and the mazes on the hill.  It is really interesting to note that the pigs love the mazes.  They will follow the paths and root in the paths and avoiding the higher grass surrounding the paths.  With deer hunting now occurring and with the pigs having driven out most of the deer, I suspect they will be in the gun sight of many hunters.  This also brings up the point, Mill Hollow is surrounded by private land owners who lease their land out to hunters.  Therefore, do stay on our property!!  

We again have a very large rat snake probably five feet in length and the size of ones arm.   Not sure if our assumed demise of the huge rat snake which patrolled the Christmas tree fields, barn and under the house was premature or if this is another huge rat snake which has claimed our fields as their territory.  Regardless, we welcome all critters even if they crawl and scare the living day lights out of me when I stumble across them.  

We are getting the farm ready for everyone to come up starting the Friday after Thanksgiving and weekends after till Christmas.  Since this is a short selling season with Thanksgiving being so late, we do expect crowds and having to deal with "managed chaos".  Marge and I must apologize if we are unable to spend any time talking to all of our customers.  Just keep in mind, we are probably in deep thought about why a worker did not show up, why a traffic jam  is occurring in the road up the hill or a mechanical shaker which refuses to shake!

Remember, we open the Friday after Thanksgiving.  We are not open to anyone on Thanksgiving.  This is our day to enjoy the quiet before the storm!.  

This year, I had great hopes of adding a couple of new attractions ( a "B" tree and a duck race") to the  farm.  Well, time ran out!  As I have in past years, I will again try to add these new attractions next year and maybe more from my very long list.  As you probably know, I refuse to get up tight about something like this.  Like our customers, I want to enjoy the farm.  If I do not enjoy the farm, I think you know what the outcome would be for our customers.   

August 7, 2013

The local Houston TV stations routinely announce on their weather segment that the area is in a drought.  

Well at Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm, this is not the situation.  We got our normal spring rains.  So far this summer, we also have benefitted from our normal summer soaking showers.  For example in the last three weeks, we received 3 inches  of rain in in two separate showers.  

Based on the amount of time mowing the grass between the Christmas trees, it is obvious to me that this year is wetter than normal.  Besides the grass growing, the Christmas trees are loving this rain.   

Why are we so different from the greater Houston area?  I am not sure but suspect our farm may be in a unique micro climate.  This micro climate may be due to the hills of our farm causing passing rain clouds to rise and drop moisture.  It may even be related to being close to Lake Livingston and the relatively high humidity around a lake.  

I have noticed some trends.  If the Lufkin area get showers, they tend to move south and give us a soaking.  If the Beaumont area has rain, they tend to move northeast and also give us rain.   I find it very interesting that 5-10 miles away, it can be bone dry while the grass at Mill Hollow is green and growing!!  

It has been many months since we have seen our huge old rat snake patrolling the Christmas tree field.  I suspect he has joined Jude in "critter heaven".  It is interesting to note that now we are seeing an abundance of squirrel and rabbits in the Christmas tree field.  It obviously did not take them long to figure out that the rat snake was no longer here.  So far this year, we have not seen any other snakes.  I would expect they also will follow the squirrels and rabbits.  Time will tell.    

The other critter we always have problems with is the feral hogs.  They come in from the adjacent lands and every now and then will test the electric fence.  A pack of hogs can kill 50-100 trees in a night by rooting around the trees.  However, they will not cross the electric fence.  

I have also noticed that the feral hogs do not like coyotes.  When ever a coyote pack spends some time around our farm, the pigs move on to somewhere else.  I suspect it is related to coyotes love to have a little pork (piglet) now and then instead of their normal diet of rabbits, squirrels and other small critters.

April 7, 2013

It is a very sad day at Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm.  Jude our petting dog for over 13 years died this morning. He was buried next to the flag pole and near to our first petting dog, Brandon, and also our petting rabbit, Babs.  (Brandon died during our October Outing 14 years ago.  Our daughter had this extremely friendly rabbit Babs who took over this petting responsibility for that season. )  

 

Jude was not named for Saint Jude but for the song "Hey Jude" by the Beatles.  This song was playing on the radio when our daughter and Marge came back with Jude from Northeast Texas.  The song seemed to comfort him.  

In retrospect, Jude was no "saint".  He created memories for anyone who crossed paths with him.    

Jude will be remembered for his part of the Christmas tree farm and being part of our family.   The farm was his territory to roam and protect if necessary.  Marge and I were obviously part of his "pack".  He was also very instrumental in our decision to let families bring their dogs to the farm.   If Jude was so integral to our family, it was obvious that other dogs were more than pets but members of our customer families.           

Jude was an kid pleaser.  If any child, especially around 5-6 years of age, would gather at the fence to pet him, he many times would take the time to toss a gallon can.  As more kids gathered and laughed, he would fill the can with water, toss the can  and splash everyone around .   As you can expect, this generated more laughs.  As Jude got older, we had to take the can away.  He just did not know when to stop.    

Jude was a companion.  The farm was his territory.  When ever walking the trails, Jude had to be first and always stayed in front but within sight.   He was especially good in finding scents of other animals who also crossed our path.

Jude was a guard.  Every morning he would walk through the fields checking out anything unusual.  If the pigs broke through the electric fence and he found some poop, he would roll over and over in it and then come back to show us what he found!!

Jude found lost items.  When ever I lost by reading glasses or hat, I could expect Jude to find them and bring them to me all slobbered up.   

Jude was part of the family.  When I went out on the porch  in the morning to enjoy my cup of coffee, Jude was there with me.  It was like either Marge or I could not be alone without him.

Jude was a timid hunter.  He would go out and chase anything that moved in the Christmas tree field.  In the forest, he was very hesitant of the critters he crossed paths with.   In his younger days, he loved to chase the vultures  hovering over the Christmas tree field.  In his older days, he figured out that it was futile and just better to sit and watch.

Jude was a "puppy" until his  last days.  If some child would let him out of his petting cage, the first thing he would do is jump on a picnic table and grab a camera or purse and run.  It was a game of chase.  

Jude was mischevious till the day he died.  We were staking our Christmas tree seedlings.  Jude would routinely come up behind and knock your hat off, grab it and run!  

Jude, you will always be in our heart.  RIP good fellow.   

February 9, 2013

We are in the process of planting Christmas tree seedlings.  The Virginia pine are nearly done and should be completely done by next week.  With the Leyland cypress and Arizona cypress, the planting spots have been identified and prepared.  We are just waiting for one of our historic two inch showers to provide the spring moisture these seedlings need to survive.  Historically we get this rain by February 15.  We also noticed that there is no correlation between these early spring rains and whether or not we get drought conditions during the summer.  

The farm is loaded with wild life either making it home or having it in its range.  Rumors have a big cat, possibly a panther, routinely passing trough and munching on any loose house cats and chickens!  Well, we recently heard early in the evening the screech of what sounded like a big cat by the haunted house.  Since our electric fence was on to keep the wild hogs out, I suspect the panther voiced its objection when it made contact with the fence.

We have also seen our lone eagle soaring again over the Christmas tree fields.  I suspect it has a nest to Lake Livingston and just rode the air currents to see what was going on at the Christmas tree farm.

Now for the big news.  As many of our customers know, we split our time between the farm and our house in Cypress.  Our goal is to build a house at the Christmas tree farm and sell the one in Cypress.  Yes, we do have a building at the farm which does look like an old country farm house.  However, it was built as a place for our customers to come in when it is cold, store inventory and other Christmas tree selling related items and also to handle all the transactions during the selling season.  It has absolute no closets for clothes and a bathroom too small for Marge and I to be in at the same time!.  So, the option is either for Marge to clean out her closet , one of us to use the port-a-potties or to build a real house with closets and a larger bathroom!

This building has been pushed forward by my being retired from a full time Houston job for five years now.    Being retired, this means we are spending more and more time at the farm and corresponding less time in Houston.  It is just more relaxing to be at the Christmas tree farm.  

The site for the new house has been cleared of an old concrete foundation and, sadly, several huge pine trees!  I suspect these removed pine trees which are going to be converted into lumber theoretically may be sufficient to offset most of the framing lumber of new house.  The design by Marge of the house is in its final stages.  We are hoping to start the construction in early summer.  The nice aspect of building this house is that we are not in a hurry!!  Hopefully, this will mean getting what we want with minimal mistakes by sub-contractors.  

September 5, 2012

I have started the second shearing of the year last week when we had our first "cool" front and temperatures/humidity became more bearable.  I have found that it easier to do physical tasks when you do not have to worry about heat exhaustion.  

What do I do when it is too hot to work?  Well, this is a working farm with plenty of power equipment.  Equipment does break down with use and needs to be repaired if at all possible.  

This is the other enjoyment of a Christmas tree farm.  I love the challenge of tearing equipment apart, identify the probable problem and then fixing it.  The joy is when you have completed the repairs and no parts are left over.   A greater joy occurs when the equipment again works!   Of course, I do have instances when  the equipment is just worn out , repairs will not work and replacement is necessary.

This last year, I had a flurry of repairs involving cleaning carburetors and replacing spark plugs.  Not sure why but suspect it has to do with the ethanol in the gasoline.  The good news is that these carburetor repair and a new spark plug are easy to do, cheap and will usually get the equipment running again.

The one repair I do not do is welding.  The reason is simple.  Marge is afraid I will electrocute myself with an electric welder.  So, I am limited to the ever present "duct tape" until I can convince her otherwise!       

Our red fox has again made it presence known.  This time it came up to the house when I was having my morning coffee on the porch.  Jude, our petting dog was outside with me.  I suspect the red fox came up to check out Jude.  It appeared the fox was concerned that some other red fox was infringing on it domain.  The red fox and Jude are the same color.   Well, Jude raised his head, looked and the fox did scamper back into the woods.  

Jude realistically did not see the fox but just got his smell.  He is a very, very old dog of nearly 13 years of age.  In human years, that would be approaching 91 years old.  He has slowed down considerably and will not chase anything that will run or fly away!  His hearing is going but he can still see and walk. His scenting ability is still strong and curiosity is still there.  His greatest joy is finding something smelly in the Christmas tree field, rolling in it and then coming and showing us what he found.  In old age, Jude spends his mornings sitting on the porch and is an excited puppy when it is time to take our evening walk.   The rest of the day is spent just being an old lazy dog in the air conditioned house guarding his toys.

We still have not decided whether Jude will spend the selling season out in the caged kennel or in the house guarding the cash registers!!  Realistically, it will be dependent on the weather.  Jude loves kids , loves being petted and needs to let other critters know this is his place!  Therefore, he will probably split his time in both places.           

June 16, 2012

First shearing is still underway but the end is in sight!!  I have roughly 10 hours or twenty miles more of  carrying the 40 pound shearing machine and  shaping the Christmas trees. This means I have already walked 55 miles in the last three weeks with the shearing machine on my back.  (Reminder to self, I need to put a new notch in my belt to keep my pants up)

Do I enjoy this?  The answer is "yes".  It gets me up early in the morning, it gives me plenty of exercise and most important of all it makes me feel like I have accomplished something.  I am not one who can sleep late, just sit around, play golf or watch boring TV!    

When I am not shearing, Marge and I are also spending a lot of time on the tractor.  The grass continues to grow with the rains we are getting.  Considering last year's drought, I have no complaints.  The smell of fresh mowed grass really brings back memories of growing up in a farming community.  

I suspect our pig problem reported two months ago is  gone for this year.  As you may recall, the wild hogs were testing our perimeter electric fence.  Some were getting through.    I did go to the routine of setting off firecrackers after dark when the pigs tend to move.  This worked except for one mother pig, who I suspect was deaf ,but did respect the electric fence.  She would feed adjacent and outside of the electric fence but would send her piglets under to feed in the Christmas tree field.  Well, the coyotes came and took care of this problem!  It is really interesting how Mother Nature will solve some problems if you just wait.  

We are missing our huge six foot long,  thick as your arm,  tree climbing , non-poisonous  and black pine snake!  The last time I saw it was last fall.   (Its shedded skin was used on our hay wagon snake talk)   Considering its huge size, I doubt if any of the local vultures or hawks would have attempted to have it for lunch.  Now, one of our nearby eagles probably would  but they do not routinely fly over the farm.  This snake has been around for many years.  I suspect it just died of old age.  With this pine snake no longer patrolling our Christmas tree fields, barn and under the house, we are now seeing rabbits, squirrels and lots of nesting birds!

I did notice in the last week a small pine snake in the field.  I suspect over time, it will also drive these small critters back off our hill and put everything back into balance.  I am sure one or more would question why I do not kill these rat snakes.  Well, they are not poisonous and do avoid human contact.  More importantly, they do eat the food source and keep the poisonous rattle, copperhead and water mocassin snakes away from the Christmas tree fields.  I sooner would have my "heart jump into my throat" by accidentally coming across this rat snake rather then to the rattle of a rattlesnake!       

April 10, 2012

The spring rains continue!!  So much for the forecasters who predicted another year of severe drought for East Texas. As I always said, it is hard to believe weather forecasts many months into the future when they have problems getting the one for next week in the ball park.  

With the Christmas trees and especially the grass growing, mowing is the priority and does take its toll on our swirling blade mower.  I am a little behind the mowing since last week with a bang and tractor shaking shiver, the mower died!!  The damage is not repairable consider the cost, the age of the mower and the condition of the mower.  The acidic soil for growing Christmas trees does erode the deck.  Something I found out many years ago, sometimes it is less frustrating and easier to just go buy another mower and place this one in the equipment graveyard.  One of these days, I need to get this broken equipment to a recycling yard while the price of scrap steel is unbelievably high.    

I did take a recent short seven day break from the Christmas trees.  It was not because I was tired but orders from my doctor.  I had a blood clot in the leg and spent seven days  flat on my back in the hospital getting it dissolved.  With no pain or discomfort, it was more or less a journey in trying to find something on the TV to occupy my time.  Even with a "zillion" channels, TV is still a wasteland.  As I have known for a long time, there is nothing which beats sitting outside at the farm with a strong cup of coffee and taking in the birds, critters and even the snakes.  This beats reality TV! 

I did spend a week or so recuperating my leg before returning to the farm and doing something I really enjoy-working.   The only after effects of this blood clot is my taking Warfarin to keep my blood thin and flowing.  The name Warfarin may sound familiar to those who grew up in the 50's in farming country and had to deal with rats.  

Warfarin was developed by some professors at the University of Wisconsin to kill rats.  Before Warfarin, the poisons available would kill rats but many would end up the walls to die.  A dead rat really stinks!  Apparently, this poison thinned out the rat blood, made them thirsty and forced them to go outside for water and hopefully die outside.   As you can guess, Warfarin was widely accepted.   

Every spring, we have wild hogs who test our electric fence.  A couple of wild hogs can in one night kill a hundred or so Christmas trees by rooting around their base and eating the roots.  From another Christmas tree grower who had problems with hogs, I found out that a snoot high electric fence may help.  They could just walk through the electric fence but something about the voltage spark which causes many of them to stop, reconsider and hopefully go somewhere else.  

The problem this year is we have one or two hogs which either ignore the fence or found a way around it.  The fence does not completely encircle the Christmas tree field.  If a pig gets in, we do want it to have a way to get out!!!   I have extended the fence to cross a gully which appears to be the path of one of the pig incursions.  In addition, I have set off firecrackers at night to scare them away.  Time will tell if this works.  

I keep getting asked about hunting these hogs.  Well, they come out well after dark and retreat back to their safe area before the sun comes up.  In addition, I have been told that they have a five mile range of travel.  They could come one night and maybe the next but also could come back weeks later.  However one trait I have noticed about these hogs, they are smart, very smart!!  If a pig trap catches one, the rest will avoid it no matter how much corn is put into it.  I am hoping the same happens with the electric fence.  Hopefully, the one which gets zapped will pass the word that the Christmas tree fields need to be avoided.        

February 1, 2012

The selling season is over. The fields have been cleaned. The Virginia pine seedlings have been planted.  The Leyland cypress seedlings are being acclimated and will be planted  in the next week or two.  

Most important of all, the winter rains have arrived and contrary to the long term forecast of some "experts" in the field.  This confirms my suspicion that if state of the art weather forecasting has problems predicting next week's weather, they definitely can not predict with any certainty next months, next summer or next fall's weather!  Being an engineer and familiar with the number of fluid flow factors affecting the world's weather, this does not surprise me.   (The comment I like is that the fluttering of a butterfly in Mexico can affect the world's weather.)   I suspect some of the "experts" do not have a statistically sound mathematical method of forecasting but only extrapolate what is happening now will also happen tomorrow, next month or even next year.  When you think about it, they have a 50/50 chance of being right!  This is the same as if you tossed a coin.

How long will you be growing Christmas trees?  This is one of those questions I get frequently get.  I suspect this question if probably generated by my white hair, being retired from my real job, obviously growing older each year and just plain curiosity.  The response I give is this farm will continue as long as I have fun, the customers continue to be great and the children enjoy what we do.  It is Marge and my way to give back to the community something they may be missing.  I also helps that I enjoy the physical labor and mental relaxation provide by this beautiful scenic farm.  The question I always ask my elf is what would I be doing if I did not do Christmas trees?  So far, none of the alternatives are what I like doing!