A tree grows in North Carolina Christmas: Fraser firs, which thrive in the alpine climate of the Blue Ridge Mountains, have become increasingly popular holiday symbols.

SUN JOURNAL

December 10, 1997|By Wade Rawlins | Wade Rawlins,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WEST JEFFERSON, N.C. -- Thought about getting a Christmas tree yet?

Ron Hudler has been thinking about Christmas trees for 11 months -- ever since last Christmas, in fact. Hudler has a half-million of them growing on 14 farms that dot this scenic sweep of the southern Appalachian mountains.

Hudler walks slowly across a gravel lot past a red farm wagon on which a half-dozen laborers are sprawled, napping. They sit up on elbows as he approaches.

"Don't get up on my account," Hudler says. "We were here until midnight last night loading trees."

Right now is the busy season in Christmas tree country -- the culmination of the annual cycle of planting and pruning. The phone rings persistently at Hudler Carolina Tree Farm. One customer wants to pick up 5,000 trees 10 days ahead of schedule. Out in the fields, a tree baler has blown a motor, and another has snapped its cables, bringing harvesting to a temporary halt.

Asked to explain the simple pleasures of tree farming, Hudler says, between phone calls, "This is a bad time to ask that question. You should call me when I'm skiing."

Since early November, Hudler and other western North Carolina growers have been tagging, trimming, cutting and hauling trees to have them on retail lots when people get in the mood to start hanging ornaments. The bundled trees lean together in holding pens, grouped by size, awaiting shipment across the country.

North Carolina is one of the nation's top Christmas tree producing states, along with Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and California. It ranks second behind Oregon with 6 million trees harvested annually, the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association says.

Nearly all Christmas trees grown commercially here are Fraser ,, firs, a native species. The Fraser thrives in the alpine climate of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from southern Virginia to western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Intolerant of heat, it grows naturally only at elevations above 4,500 feet.

The trees have a dark green, almost bluish cast, a spiky appearance, a resinous fragrance and soft needles that are silvery on the underside.

Most of the state's 2,500 Christmas tree growers raise their crops in a dozen counties along the Appalachian spine from Asheville to the Virginia line. The rocky soil and cool nighttime temperatures make for ideal growing conditions.

Drive the twisting, brake-stomping mountain roads of Ashe County and behold. Row upon row of Frasers sweep up the sides of every cultivated mountain like evergreen battalions on the march.

"In the mountains, it's the best thing you can do with your land," Hudler says. "I've watched with great fascination the tree business just explode."

A former General Motors Corp. vice president, Hudler, 63, sports a silver ponytail and drives a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He planted his first 5,000 trees in Michigan in 1981 as a sort of let's-see proposition. Four years later, he set out a crop in North Carolina and soon moved back to the mountains, where his parents grew up. His three sons, all in their 30s, have moved here to join the business.

"It's good, honest work," says Fred Hudler, 34, who quit his job writing automotive catalogs for an ad agency. "You sleep well at night, although right now no one is getting enough sleep."

This year, Hudler Tree Farm will harvest more than 100,000 trees, or about 200 tractor-trailer loads, making the tree farm one of the state's larger growers. In 1995, Hudler presented the official White House Christmas tree. This year he sent a 19-foot tree to the new George Bush Presidential Library.

North Carolina Fraser firs have been judged the nation's best in a contest sponsored by the National Christmas Tree Association and have been chosen as the official White House Christmas tree eight times.

"That's more than any other state," says Pat Wilkie, executive director of the N.C. Christmas Tree Association. "We're quite proud of that."

This year, another North Carolina family, Sanford and Deborah ,, Fishel of Grassy Creek, presented the official tree to the White House. The Fishels grow trees on about 500 acres in Ashe County, N.C., and Grayson and Smith counties in Virginia.

"Having a Fraser fir in the White House this year is a dream come true for our family," says Deborah Fishel, who also is providing a ++ 16-foot tree for the first family's private quarters.

Frasers have become increasingly popular and now account for about 15 percent of the 35 million Christmas trees sold nationally.

"Frasers have really taken off because they are being grown in a lot of different places, not just North Carolina," says Kathy Olejnik, a spokeswoman for the National Christmas Tree Association in Milwaukee.

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