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Trials and Tribulations of a Texas Christmas Tree Farmer
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August 15, 2019
Marge and I have made the decision it is time to permenantly close choose and cut at Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm. So there is no misunderstanding, we will not open this year, 2019, or any year after for your family to get a real Texas Christmas tree.
Why are we doing this? As many of you have asked in the past, when will we really retire and not sell Christmas trees? The answer we normally gave is dependent on our health (primarily), being hit by a category 5 hurricane, forest, field or building fire or just getting too old!!
Well, our barn burned to the ground. In it was our hay ride, selling equipment, rolling tires, netting, stands, marshmallow roasting sticks , etc., and most important of all our tools and back up equipment needed to make repairs. We did not loose our tractors, ATV and equipment stored outside.
Realistically, all lost equipment could be replaced. What we had to consider is whether it was worth the energy considering our age.
As many of you know, Marge and I have experienced a lot of life. It was and still is a very good life. Our gray hair is real. For the younger customers out there, age may be hard to comprehend. If you are a history buff, I was drafted during the Vietnam War which should give you an idea on how old I am. For those who did not cover the Vietnam War in history or not good on math, I am 74 years old!
How old can you be and still be in the Christmas tree business? To put my age in perspective, I am probably the second oldest very active owner of a Christmas tree farm in Texas. In addition, our farm is probably in the top 5 and definitely in the top 10 in choose and cut Christmas tree sales in Texas.
The question becomes, why not pass it down to your daughter? Well, our daughter and son in law did not want to take over the choose and cut and related operations. Obviously, our daughter is grown, knows the effort required realistically with our upbringing is mature enough to make the right decision. We honor her decision.
All of the above said it was time to call it quits on Christmas tree sales and explore other activities to keep Marge and I busy and involved.
I must also mention that I enjoyed planting, mowing, shaping and doing the work to have a Christmas tree farm. I must be kept busy. In addition, both Marge and I enjoyed the selling season and the chance to talk to all of our customers. This is the part we will miss.
I suspect, some will think, we should sell or lease to someone else to handle. This is not possible since it will only create another set of problems and mess up my retirement with other worries! Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm is our home!!
We will be putting this information on Facebook and send out several emails so families will not make the drive to Mill Hollow only to find us closed. Do call and let others know we will not be selling Christmas trees any more.
I am sure a few will ask where else can I get a Christmas tree. Well, the best source is the www.TexasChristmasTrees.com web site. These are all farms like us with each one having different activities, pricing and size of trees. Be sure to tell the owner(s), you are a Mill Hollow Christmas Tree Farm past customer.
What will we be doing with the Christmas Tree Farm? Our plans are to systematically convert all of the Christmas tree fields to Long Leaf Pines. This is the original tree of Texas found when settlers moved into East Texas. These trees were replaced with the faster growing Loblolly pines with very few tracts of Long Leaf pines left in Texas.
June 21, 2019
It has come to my attention we do not have a picture of our petting dog, Zoey. As many of you know, our past and beloved petting dog Jude passed away several years ago and currently occupies a spot around the flag pole.
Zoey is different from Jude. She is very protective of us and also reserved into accepting others into the "pack". Once she smells you and confirms you are not a threat, you are OK and can pet her.
Zoey is a rescue puppy found on freeway entrance ramp on Interstate I-45 near to Hobby Airport. A group of homeless in the area placed her in a very vibrant pink baby shirt which probably prevented her from being run over. They also thought she was a very, very special puppy.
Why did we select Zoey is our new petting dog? Well, she is identical in coloring, traits, intelligence, personality and protective nature like my first and only dog growing up called Tippy. Zoey like Tippy even has a white tip on her tail. Considering the coloring and personality of Zoey, I consider her a reincarnation of Tippy. Tippy lived to be I believe 17 years of age before going to doggy heaven.
Tippy was special in many ways. Back in those days, my dad paid $3 for Tippy on advice of the owner that this will be the best dog you ever had. He was right. To put it in perspective, a gallon of gasoline went for somewhere between 15-20 cents a gallon. Rural area dogs were a "dime a dozen". It was unheard of to pay to for a puppy. Well, my Dad did see something in Tippy and probably would see the same in Zoey. She is a very special dog.
This is Zoey:
May 15, 2019
Recovery from Hurricane Harvey is still occurring. Most of the big projects have been completed. The ones left are as follows:
1. Replacing missing span on wooden bridge to Maze area. (Summer 2019)
2. Mow trails on the back hill after the wooden bridge. (Summer 2020)
3. Set up mazes (Summer 2020)
As you can probably guess, the trails and mazes are dependent on getting a tractor across the creek to mow the trails and maze area. Since the maze paths are created from herbicided paths in a freshly mowed field, it is doubtful that we will have the trails and mazes available for this 2020 selling period.
We have also decided to cancel our October Outing this year and for the foreseeable future. Climate change is causing our farm work load to move from September into historically beautiful weather October. The Christmas trees need later shaping and the grass is growing faster!! (Both probably related to higher CO2 in the atmosphere and increased rainfall.) To put this in perspective, back in the late 1980's, we mowed the fields on an average three to four week cycle. Now, we are forced to do this on a two week cycle!
The good news of climate change is that the Virginia pine trees look great. Offsetting, the Leyland cypress and blue ice do not. Their quality problem appears to be related to too much rain and wet feet!!
The obvious question is why not delay the October Outing to November? Well, November has historically been rainy and overcast unlike October. It is not the time families or we want to be outside. We are still trying to find an event which could give our customers and friends a chance to experience Mill Hollow outside of the Christmas tree buying season. If you have any ideas, do let us know.
Since we really enjoy this event, this October Outing cancellation was a tough decision to make but necessary. Do keep in mind, Marge and I are growing older each year and admittedly do move a little bit slower!!
This also gives us a period of time from peak hurricane season in September to fix what the inevitable hurricane damages from global warming may create. Hopefully, we will not get a category 5 storm or a Hurricane Harvey water event since this has the likelihood of putting us out of business. A category 5 storm will literally flatten the Christmas trees in the field.
The big new event of the last several months is a bob cat has made its home outside of our Christmas tree field.
Yes, that is a rabbit in the bobcat's mouth. For the first time ever, we do not have a spring time hord of rabbits!!! This bobcat appears to be around 50 pounds or the size of our petting dog Zoey. Since Zoey does not like cats, we have been forced to keep Zoey on a lead and not running free in the field. We are not sure she could stand up to a similar size bob cat in a fight!
We have also noticed the lack of coyotes in the area for the last several months. We do have them as seen in the game camera picture.
However, we are not sure if they are avoiding the bobcat or just found better hunting somewhere else. For this reason, we do not let Zoey run free at the farm but must be on lead or under our control.
June 15, 2018
The farm concrete entrance bridge has been repaired and is now passable. Since our water line was on the bridge and also busted, it has been replaced .
Are we done with repairs? No!
Concrete entrance bridge
Cut out and remove an estimated 675 trees dying from wet feet.
Repairs still outstanding.:
Fix wooden bridge to Maze Hill
Fix cover for log fire wood storage
Fix broken water pipe in sales office
Fix tractor after getting water in the diesel after the hurricane.
With the record setting temperatures in May and now in June, these remaining repairs are going very, very slow. About all we can accomplish in this hot weather is shearing the Christmas trees and mowing the fields and then retreat to the cool air conditioned spaces. Obviously none of the repairs waiting to be done are in air conditioning.
With cooler or at least seasonable weather still hoped for, we expect to complete these repairs.
However, some attractions may not be ready this year. Specifically, the mazes will not be ready. The reason is we must mow before creating maze paths. With the wood bridge to the back impassable, we can not get a tractor to the area to mow. Also questionable are the trails accessible across the wooden bridge which also have to be mowed.
Now for the good news. The Virginia pine trees look great and probably the best since we have opened.
We do not have many Virginia pine trees over 10 feet in height because of wet feet. These dying trees have been removed.
The reason for these big trees having wet feet is the soil at the farm. The Christmas tree fields have anywhere from inches to 5 feet of soil above 10-15 feet of fine sand. Under normal conditions, this is great for growing Christmas trees. However, Hurricane Harvey with it 4-5 feet of rain filled up this fine sand layer with water. With outflow limited to springs, this water stayed for many days and maybe weeks. With the over 10 foot trees, it appears their tap root was in this water filled sand and began dying from "wet feet". Consequently, these dying and dead trees had to be removed to make way for more seedlings to be planted.
To put this water in perspective, we had springs popping up on top of the hills!!!
The loss of these big trees in number was roughly equal with the number we would have sold if opened last year. With the smaller trees not being affected, we will have plenty of trees available this year. The only problem will be very few are over 10 feet in height.
Unlike the Virginia pine, the Leyland cypress and Arizona cypress are not doing that great. With the Leyland cypress, the past years of wetter than normal weather and high customer demand has limited the number available and quality this year. If we do not get more normal weather, we may have to discontinue this species of trees. Time will tell!
September 15, 2017
If you are reading this, you probably know we have cancelled all 2017 event this fall and winter including our October Outing and Choose and Cut. The reason is simple. Hurricane Harvey made our access bridge impassible. With no access, no entry is possible. We do plan on having everything repaired by 2018.
How damaged is the bridge? If you click on Hurricane Harvey Damage you can get a visual. The access bridge is roughly 30 degrees off horizontal to the creek floor , the north horizontal pier beam is washed out and in the creek bed, and the north end of the bridge is roughly 1-2 feet below the road. Repairs will require lifting the 50 foot concrete and steel bridge, leveling the center posts, extending the I-beams to solid ground at both ends, and putting in new concrete supports at the end of the I-beams. Obviously, this is not something I can do with my small Kabota tractor but must involve someone who has cranes, bulldozers and other construction equipment and most important know how to weld I beams for maximum strength.
Why did this occur. Well, we had anywhere from 40-50 inches of rain!! (My trash can used to monitor rain fell over during the hurricane winds.) The water must flow downhill to the Gulf of Mexico. For our bridge which is 25 feet above the creek, the water flow not only went under the bridge but may have hit the bridge I-beans and causing the tilt. This was considered a 800 year event!!! Will it occur again? Based on the frequency of these events and Global Warming, the answer is probably yes and may even be as soon as next year!
We not only experience damage to the concrete and steel access bridge, we also had a huge pine tree fall across our wooden bridge to Maze Hill. Since I built this bridge using my Combat Engineer's Handbook, I along with a couple of strong backs can handle this repair. Again, you can see the damage on Hurricane Harvey Damage.
I am an admitted optimist. The good news is this cancellation of 2017 events gives us the opportunity to have Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with family and friends. In addition, this also gives us time to see how our operations are done, what needs to be expanded and what needs to be cancelled. For example, we have already cancelled school tours back in 2016.
One area of concern is our Christmas tree growing practices. With these frequent rain events, our Leyland and Arizona cypress trees are not of the quality we had in past years. For example, in the past five years it takes to grow a leyland or Arizona cypress, we had one catastrophic drought, three excessive rain years and only one normal year! Leylands unlike the Virginia pine do not like their feet getting wet. Normally, we have three or four years in a five year cycle of normal weather. Is this the norm for our microclimate with globle warming and could force us not to try growing these cypress tree species?
We are also looking at the Virginia pine trees. They can handle the wet conditions. However, weather events are delaying the hardening of new growth by roughly 30 days over the last 25 years!! This hardening is what gives our Christmas trees their fluffy look. We used to complete the second shearing by September 15 and now it is October 15. With our October Outing the last two weekends in October, we may have to either cancel or delay it into more rainy November.
We have many more areas like this to look at. Some even include adding more attractions for the children.
Will we stay in the Christmas tree business? As long as our health is good, the answer is yes. We love our customers and want them to enjoy the farm like we have since 1983. These Christmas trees are the reason I get up every morning. I need the exercise they provide and the happiness they provide our customers when found and taken home.
May 29, 2017
It is official. We have been living at the Christmas tree farm since the first of the year. Everything has been moved and most boxes unpacked. Now to sort through 40 years of memories . The big and tough decision is what do we keep and store or display and what is trash. The only item yet to be moved to the farm is my 1968 MGB. If you do not know what they look like, go to may (Dennis Gunia) facebook page. It is my cover photo.
It is amazing what you find when you go through your belongings and box them for a move. For example, I found my two slide rules from college and even the instruction books on how to use them!! Obviously, they will be displayed and not used since a calculator is a lot easier to use and life does not require many of the functions possible on a slide rule. For those who have never used a slide rule, the one function it can not do is add and subtract.
Our petting dog Zoey loves being up at the farm. She has one nightly intruder which she is trying to chase out. It is a very fast armadillo. She is also discovering the deer which pass through the Christmas tree fields and by the new house. If they run, she will run after them. If they stand, she also stands and watches. Obviously, they probably consider her just a pest in their eating area.
We will be starting shearing the Christmas trees in a few days. The equipment has been checked out. Now to wait until the timing is right based on the stiffening of new growth to start the process.
Many of the very tall Christmas trees with "antlers " (unsheared tops) have been placed on the field boundaries next to the electric fence. This brush barricade along with the electric fence keep the wild pigs from coming in and rooting around the Christmas trees. This rooting if allowed will kill many of the trees in the months to follow and make the ground very uneven.
We do keep an inventory of these trees with antlers so each year we can add to the boundary brush pile. Some may questions why we do not just place a chicken fence around the fields. Well, it is a matter of economics. The very tall trees cost me the price of a seedling which is many, many times less the cost of chicken fencing, posts, the labor to install and yearly maintenance. Also, the antler trees are the ones for a variety of reason have not been selected by our customers over the years of growth as their family Christmas tree. Each year, we do have probably a dozen customers who want a huge tree (11-16 foot) and do take the antler trees. This does require them pruning the top if so desired to get the shape of a Christmas tree. Obviously, cleaning and baling these antler trees are not possible.
Other critters love these antler tree brush barricades. Specifically, we are finding rabbits, squirrels, armadillos and even snakes and especially the rat snake calling these brush barricades home. Right now we have at least one four foot long non poisonous rat snake routinely patrolling our fields looking for something to snack on. This search for food is believed to be the reason we are seeing fewer poisonous copper head or water mocassin snakes in the fields. Interestingly, these rat snakes are big enough I suspect even the hawks will not attempt to have them for lunch.
Now for the frustrating news, this last selling season we also had someone park by the bridge and cut a Christmas tree after we were closed. Being on a dead end road, one of our neighbors seen this pick up truck come by empty and leave with a Christmas tree in the back. Obviously, we are reinforcing the brush barricades in this area. I suspect their will be a lot more cursing from the brush making it difficult to walk, maybe even a shock or two from the electric fence and hopefully stepping on a snake to making stealing a Christmas tree less desirable. Oh yes, we do call the local constable and sheriff when we suspect this is occurring.
September 27, 2016
As many of our customers know, we started construction of a house at the Christmas tree farm in 2016. It is done except for moving in. Before we make the move, we decided not to take any "junk" to the new house. We want only the items we use, want or need. This means we are currently sorting through 40 plus years of accumulation of "memories" and "hopes" hidden in our closets and attics of our Cypress house. After all, I do not believe Marge and I could ever fit in the clothes we wore in the 1970's even if they did come back into style. About the only major item being saved is my 1968 MGB!!!
This year like last has been a very wet year. We are having trees die because of wet feet. The species most affect are the Leyland cypress. We are loosing major number of 6 to 8 foot trees like last year.
Is this related to Global warming? I do not know. However over the recent years, we are seeing more years of weather extremes than we have since growing christmas trees in 1983. For example, it takes 4-5 years to grow a Christmas tree. In the last five years we have seen 1 year of extreme drought followed by two years of extreme rains with only two years of what we consider normal weather. The extremes are what kills Christmas trees! I am still searching without success for the agricultural product which loves to grow in drought and extreme wetness and wanted by people.
We did cancel our October Outing this year. There were two major causes.
The first was the frequent spring and summer rains. This prevented the yearly culling of trees and also made our field too wet to mow. Wet muddy fields slowed our twice annual shaping of Christmas trees. Shaping Christmas trees is a dangerous work and require good footing. If the ground is muddy or the grass is too high, tripping is a possible with a high probability of injury. Therefore, we are forced to sit, watch the rain and enjoy the farm. What this has done is put or work load four weeks behind!!! Realistically, we will be still shearing trees when we normally have our October Outing.
The other major cause was getting a torn miniscus in my knee during the early summer shearing. The pad between the bones in my left knee tore and required surgery. Obviously, being on crutches waiting for the surgery and then the weeks of recuperation after did not help get the trees sheared even if the fields were dry!! I can walk but still not back to normal.
Some may wonder why did we not hire help? Well, we did! A Christmas tree farm is not for the unskilled workers. For example, I could point to our shearing machine and tell a worker to start shearing trees. In reality, he could not even get the 2 cycle engine started without guidance. This goes for shaping, mowing, chainsaw work etc. My rule of thumb is a very competent and hard working worker can do my job but take more time and require onsite guidance. Since guidance is the limiting factor when one can not walk, another worker would not significantly reduce the activities we still need to do.
Therefore, we just cancelled the October events and will be ready for the Friday after Thanksgiving when choose and cut will start.
Each year, we look at what we do and decide if we want to keep doing it. After all, Marge and I are adding an additional year on with each birthday! If we enjoy it, we continue. If it becomes more of a hassle or hard on this "aging" body, we eliminate it.
This year, we eliminated the school tours. Since we enjoy working with children, this was a very hard decision to make. With the financial problems both public and private schools are having, many have made the decision to keep the kids in the classroom and not out on field trips. This is expected to continue for the foreseeable future unless state school financing improves. Without a critical volume of school field trips, we could not justify keeping this option available for those schools wanted to expose their students to something out side of the text books.
Time to send out emails telling our past customers that the October Outing events have been cancelled for 2016.
August 1, 2015
This year like last has been extremely wet. Our Christmas trees based on the 2011 drought can better handle the lack of rain than excessive rains. With a big gully washer, the rain just runs off the hills, into the creeks and eventually into Lake Livingston.
The problem this year was not the amount of rain in any given storms but that in May and June we received rain nearly every day. These soaking rains resulted in springs popping up in our Christmas tree fields and resulted in "wet feet" for many of our Christmas trees. Wet feet for a Christmas tree will result in it turn a brilliant beautiful red and is the indication that it is "deader than a door nail".
This year was especially bad for our Leyland cypress Christmas trees with the loss of many seedlings and trees up to eight foot tall. With the 2011 drought and now the excessive soaking rains, we do anticipate a shortage of Leyland cypress Christmas trees in the next couple of years.
The good news is that these rains are making our Virginia pine trees grow and look great with only a couple of "red trees" among them.
Growing up in a farming community in Wisconsin, I do remember the farmers talking about nature just makes farming more interesting and challenging. If you like consistency in your life, farming is not the way to go!
As many of you will notice on arrival at the farm, we will soon be moving up to the farm and into a new house!! We started construction in February, completed the roof, plumbing and electrical wiring and currently at the stage of insulating with the wall board to follow. We should have it more or less done by the selling season.
Obviously, we will not move up to the farm until the 2015 selling season is history. We want to enjoy life and not create worry by moving too fast. As others of my generation may say, gray hair gives you a better perspective on life.
This better perspective on life is why I went out and bought a 20 year old "swinging blade" Christmas tree shaping machine. It is not that I really needed it nor will it make shearing easier. It is because it gives me a back up to my existing 20 year old reciprocating tree shaping machine. After many, many years, I have come to the conclusion that back ups reduce worry!! Do keep in mind, overnight delivery in the country means the replacement parts, if in stock ,will come in next week maybe!
Last year we had an abundance of rabbits. Well, this year it is the squirrels! The hawks, vultures and coyotes are still around. We even have two rat snakes patrolling the Christmas tree fields. Not sure if they lost their taste for small game or are just overwhelmed by the number of small critters. We will just have to wait and see.
October 1, 2014
We have completed the second of two shearings and ready to set the farm up for our October Outing Events. This year, we have added the "B" tree but literally ran out of time in getting the duck race built. Oh well, I do have to save some projects for next year!!
This year for the first time we are having piglets come under the electric wire and practice their rooting among the Christmas trees. I suspect the momma hog is guiding them on how to get under the wire. They are doing very little damage and suspect they will go somewhere else after getting shocked a few times as they grow.
The year so far has been uneventful except for getting our daughter married!! We did combine her wedding with a trip to the Southwest US including checking out our old haunts in Long Beach, California. The area is called Belmont Shore for those who once lived in Los Angeles.
It is amazing how much changes in 40 years!! I could only find one bar, the Acapulco Inn, to survive more or less intact from the old days. Actually it has improved. It does not smell like spilled beer and now has a patio to watch the people pass by while drinking a cold one. I was very disappointed that my favorite Italian joint close to the Belmont theater and locally famous Hamburger Henry's are history and replaced by some non-descript stores and parking lots.
Strange things happen in these East Texas woods. We have neighbors who swear they have seen/heard big foot. More recently, we got reports that we have "crop circles" on our back hill!!! If you are curious, do go to Google maps and check these crop circles out at 500 Palmetto Drive, Oakhurst, Texas. The crop circles are to the west of the Christmas tree fields.
January 24, 2014
We must thank all of the families who came up to the farm. This last selling season was the most hectic ever but also the most enjoyable ever. We also must thank our workers, many who were new, who handled this managed chaos with a smile.
The Leyland cypress and Virginia pine seedlings have arrived. However, the ground has been too dry to start planting. Experience has shown that these seedlings need moisture when planted especially if the spring rains are delayed. No moisture means many will die. With the rain, sleet and then snow today providing this needed moisture, we will be planting this next week and then hoping the spring rains will occur.
This time of the year, Marge and I look at this last selling season and see what worked and more importantly what did not work. If it worked, we do not change anything. If it did not work or more importantly we did not enjoy what happened, we make changes.
This year, our Christmas tree deliveries were on the "chopping block". Should we continue this service or should we reduce or eliminate it. The benefit for continuing is we really enjoy delivering the Christmas trees. Besides being a service, This is an unexpected service especially to those who can not make it up to the farm. The other major benefit is we also get to see where are customers are coming from. Now for the disadvantages. Our pickup truck (1996 Dodge) and our delivery trailer (1996 also) are getting up in years. Replacement needed if deliveries are to continue. For the biggest disadvantage and more importantly, Marge and I are also getting up in years. Yes, my gray hair is real!! Another consideration, we will in the next year be moving up to the farm making these deliveries more difficult.
Consequently, a decision was made to discontinue these deliveries in 2014 and beyond.
The natural conclusion some may reach is that we will be shutting down the farm next. The answer is an absolute "NO". As long as I can enjoy the work at the farm and families enjoy coming up to the farm, we will be open. Is age a problem? I am an optimist. With the oldest Christmas tree farmer in Texas now in his mid 80's and still planting, shearing and working with customers, I also believe to have many, many more years to plant, shear and enjoy families coming up to the farm.
As many of you know, Mill Hollow is my physical and also my mental health club. I am not one who can watch TV, play golf or spend the day napping! I must be doing something which keeps the body moving and the brain thinking. Running a Christmas tree farm does this.
We also decided it is time to add a few more attractions to the farm. On the short list to be done hopefully by this fall are the following:
1. A "B" tree on the trails
2. A duck race area
3. New outfits for the witches at the haunted house.
I will be going over my list of possible attractions and hopefully will find a few more to include. The bad news is that the very popular Adventure Crossing will not be on the list unless our insurance carrier changes their mechanical device restrictions!
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's 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 my 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!
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