- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

Who wants to look for the perfect Christmas tree in the rain? I didn't. So when area tree farms opened their gates over the drizzly Thanksgiving holiday weekend, my family and I stayed close to our suburban Virginia hearth.

On Monday following the holiday weekend, however, the sun was shining on a nearly Indian-summer day. It was time to venture to Melody Farm, near the Manassas Civil War Battlefield, to check out the phenomenon of choosing and cutting a Christmas tree.

I found 70-year-old proprietor Jim Clarke waiting for me, saw in hand. He had been dozing in the sun, he said, when he heard me drive up.

And I was a latecomer. Plenty of people hadn't been bothered by the weekend's rain. Mr. Clarke said Melody Farm already had sold 247 trees.

"There's a whole lot of people who the day after Thanksgiving is their tree day," he said. "There's a lot of tradition involved there, and I can't tell you why."

People had lined up at the gates at 9 a.m. over the weekend, practically clamoring to get in.

But today there was no one just me and Mr. Clarke. He had time to talk about this business of Christmas-tree farming and the customers who come, year after year, to chop down their own trees.

He has been a tree farmer for 20 years, he told me, one of 32 in Loudoun County alone. He calls it a "fun" business.

"When people come here, we get a happy group," says the former vice president of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers. "Everyone has expectations they're looking for that perfect tree. Lots of families come out and romp and play through the fields. It's a good time."

All visitors to Melody Farm are met as I was by Mr. Clarke, saw in hand. Customers are invited to tramp through the fields to find their tree, or they can hitch a ride on a tractor-pulled wagon to look.

Once a tree is chosen and cut, the proud owner either can drag it back to base camp himself or hitch a return ride on the wagon.

Mr. Clarke grows two varieties of pine trees on his 40 acres: White and Scotch. The whites have the long, soft needles; the needles on the Scotch are short and prickly. For some reason even he doesn't understand, the Scotches are favored by customers.

Melody Farm sells 2,000 trees each season. Mr. Clarke says his biggest weekends are the first and second in December, when he and his helpers often family members will sell 200 to 300 trees per day.

Selling the Christmas trees is a brief, intense annual blast of effort, but taking care of the crop is a year-round job.

The cycle usually begins in February, says Mr. Clarke, when the existing trees are sprayed to keep fungus and insects at bay. Baby trees are planted in late February or early March, and grass-cutting around the property follows. In late June and early July, the trees are trimmed into the traditional Christmas-tree shape.

"If we don't do that, they grow into bushes," he said. Then the farmer sprays again, and the grass is shorn twice more.

Each Christmas tree takes about six years to grow to maturity. An 8-foot tree is about 9 years old.

Choosing and cutting your own tree certainly beats buying one precut at your local market, Mr. Clarke said.

"You get a fresh tree, which is the most important reason of all," he said. "The reason I say this is, just think, if you've got to bring millions of trees to market, those trees have to be cut, bagged, stored, and ready to ship for weeks. On big wholesale farms, they start cutting trees on the first of November."

He said his choose-and-cut trees will be good until Jan. 15, "with very little needle drop. Just put it outside in a bucket of water."

Besides, when you cut your own tree, he says, it's really yours.

"Tree-choosing is a very personal thing. Everybody wants a perfect tree, and when they see it they know that's it."

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