OUT IN THE MARYLAND HIGH COUNTRY, JUST EAST OF WEST VIRGINIA and just west of the Eastern Continental Divide, a shrewd judge of tree flesh named Doc Custer has stopped his Chevy pickup on a grassy ridge to survey his empire below.
There are almost 90 acres down there, most of them thick and prickly with 60,000 evergreens. The trees within Doc Custer's view are arrayed in the neatest of rows, each section marked discreetly by an identifying tag: white pine, Scotch pine, blue spruce, Douglas fir, Fraser fir. They range in size from young seedlings only 4 inches tall to whoppers at 8 and 9 feet. On a slope to Doc's right, a stand of several hundred red pine, 40 and 50 feet tall, anchor his spread and offer silent, majestic testimony to his years of experience. Doc planted those trees back in 1956 -- half his life ago -- when he first started this farm; for decades, the Christmas of thousands of Marylanders has started right here on these deep green Garrett County slopes under Doc's practiced, probing eyes.
In another century Dr. Franklin D. Custer, retired veterinarian, might have sat on a horse as he paused on this ridge. His name probably would have been something like Ben Cartwright and right now he'd be getting ready to go down there to join Little Joe and Hoss for an afternoon of cowpunching. Instead, even as he eases his Chevy into four-wheel drive and jounces down the rutted side of his little mountain, the boys below have already fired up their chain saws. Little clouds of blue smoke puff into the brisk November air, dissipating quickly against a dazzling blue sky. It is only a week before Thanksgiving, and the trees are green and ripe and ready for the roundup.
"I won't sleep much at night the next six weeks," says Doc as he heads the truck toward his hired hands. "I'll be watching the weather reports. If it rains we'll either have to put raincoats on these fellas or send 'em home. We had 10 inches of snow one year and we couldn't do anything for four or five days. In this business, 85 percent of the money comes in in six weeks."
That has been the nature of this business ever since the 1940s when public demand for shapely Christmas trees -- as opposed to just any old tree plucked from a forest -- prompted the first tree plantations to spring up in Pennsylvania. It's a business with a short selling season preceded by long years of work. It takes eight to 10 years to produce a Christmas tree, and during those years growers must constantly guard against insects, diseases and weeds. They must amass a barn full of specialized tractors and balers and hydraulic spades and mowers. They must learn the critical skill of tree pruning -- one false snip of the shears and a potentially beautiful tree ends up as the kind of reject that "Peanuts" comic strip hero Charlie Brown usually ends up with. Growers go about their work knowing full well that they are not simply trying to raise a Christmas tree; they are seeking to raise a perfect Christmas tree.
"Ninety-nine percent of people want a perfectly symmetrical cone-shaped tree," says Jim Simms, the Garrett County extension agent for the University of Maryland. "A lot of people don't realize when they are paying $30 to $40 for a tree the time and effort that goes into this. On top of that, the grower will usually lose 20 percent of the trees they started with."
Still there are plenty of growers out there -- the largest from Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina. In fact, there are so many growers nationwide, says Mr. Simms, that "the market is flooded. In North Carolina alone there is one county that raises more trees than this whole state."
Maryland's 210 growers raise about 3 million trees a year, according to Carville Akehurst, administrative director of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association. Of those, about 150,000 trees will be harvested and sold this year.
"Maryland hasn't been the kind of state where large growers have developed," says Mr. Akehurst, noting that most of the state's farmers do not wholesale their trees to retail markets but open their acres each Christmas season to the saw-wielding public.
Most of those Maryland farmers who do wholesale their trees -- like Doc Custer out in Oakland -- come from the western end of the state. Mountainous acreage for growing is plentiful there, but, as Mr. Simms points out, wide open space is not the only requirement for jumping into the wholesale end of things.
"The whole key to the business is having a market," he says. "Doc Custer's key to success is that he's good at marketing. He has established markets and he's set up to deliver on time." DOC CUSTER IS A TALL, TRIM MAN OF 70, appropriately layered against the 20-degree weather: a sweat shirt, flannel shirt and undershirt all wrapped in the cocoon of one of those ankle-to-neck set of overalls. This one is done in the blue and black pinstripe pattern so popular with prison mattress designers, and available straight off the rack at your local hardware store.