by Sally Colby
Preston and Rhonda Brown grew up in the Christmas tree business, selling trees at retail lots since they were young. “I was nine years old, helping Rhonda’s grandmother,” said Preston. “We sold trees on a lot for years. Every time we went to a farm to buy trees, I would pick brains, and that’s how I learned.”
The Browns purchased their Spotsylvania, VA farm in 1981 and started growing Christmas trees the following year. The trees were intended for their retail lots, but once the trees started to mature, they didn’t make it to those lots. “We were selling trees in Richmond, and we couldn’t get out of the driveway because people kept pulling in,” Rhonda recalls. “We asked our neighbor up the road if she’d mind taking money if someone wanted a tree. She kept a saw ready for customers who needed one, and a measuring stick so she could measure trees to determine the price. It was the honor system — people just came, picked out a tree and paid on their way out.” The Browns continued selling trees both from the field and their retail lots for many years.
When it was clear that they’d do well as a choose-and-cut operation, the Browns opened the farm as such. Despite not being designed for vehicle traffic and parking, the layout of the farm, with the Brown’s historic home and a large shop in the center of the property, has lent itself to a system that works well for them. Preston refers to their setup as a ‘free-roaming system.’ “Customers can go anywhere they want to and cut any tree,” he said. “They can park and walk or drive on the paths.”
To help customers find the farm, Preston designed signs that have become a well-known holiday landmark. At first, the simple yet effective signs were the ideal way to help people other than local residents find the farm. “It took me three days to put signs up,” said Preston. “Nobody knew we were here except by word-of-mouth. I didn’t miss an intersection anywhere. That was in the 1980s.”
The varieties the Browns started with in 1982 included white pine, Scotch pine, Norway spruce and blue spruce. They purchased seedlings from the state Christmas tree program because that was the least cost option for new growers. “They had a special grade for Christmas trees,” said Preston. “It was called a 5/32 stem. They were nice plants, mostly white pine. Then they tried to push the Virginia pine, but they weren’t too pretty. They were supposed to be fast growers, good for Christmas trees, but we didn’t like them and the customers didn’t like them.”
Preston says many of their customers come out and spend the day taking family photos. Vintage tractors, a picturesque pond and neatly manicured fields of trees make the perfect backdrop for photos. Some customers come early in the season to tag a tree then return later to cut it.
The Browns recruit help during the season, including their son Chris who helps on the farm and operates the retail lot in Fredericksburg, VA. Belmont Christmas Tree Farm opens for the season just after Thanksgiving for those who have extended family and children home from college and plan to celebrate Christmas early.
“We open Black Friday,” said Preston, adding that he doesn’t recommend cutting trees before that because they won’t hold up through the holidays. “People come out here for the atmosphere and they get the kind of experience they want. Sometimes they walk the whole place then buy a precut tree because it’s more convenient for them. Everyone has different taste — you might like a tree that’s short and fat and someone else likes a tree that’s tall and skinny.”
When the choose-and-cut season begins, Rhonda drills holes in a log to hold sample branches from each of the trees grown on the farm so customers can see what the various species look like. “We tell them the recommended time to cut each one,” said Rhonda.
During the season, Preston uses a tree cart attached to a four-wheeler to pick up customers’ trees from the field. He also has a vehicle to assist customers with mobility issues in traveling to various areas of the farm. Although the farm has regular hours posted, Rhonda says that people still come to choose a tree close to dark. When that happens, she hands them a flashlight. “They have a ball,” she said. “They play hide and seek with flashlights, and I can only imagine what the tree they pick looks like. But they don’t care because they’re having so much fun.”
Trees are sold based on the variety and foot. “We bring in precut Fraser firs and sell those by the foot too,” said Rhonda. “They’ll grow in Virginia, but they have to be in the mountains.” During the busy season, at least three people are available to help customers after trees are cut: one to measure trees, one to run the baler and one to tag to ensure each customer collects the tree they’ve chosen after it’s baled. Rhonda uses trimmings from the trees to make wreaths, and customers can also pick up premade roping.
Each spring, the Browns plant new trees in the rows. “I use a hand-held auger to dig holes for new trees,” said Preston. “I dug 4,000 holes this year for seedlings.” Preston and Chris take care of shearing with a gas-powered trimmer. Although he used to dig B&Bs by hand, Preston now uses a hydraulic digger. Preston keeps an eye on trees throughout the year to watch for pests, and says that the biggest disease insect pressure is from sawflies, Pales weevil and bagworm. “At one time, in the early 80s, we’d lost 1,000 trees every year to Pales weevil,” he said, adding that a regular spray program takes care of the problem.
The Browns rely on social media, including a web page and Facebook, for advertising. Preston still puts out the same hand-made signs he placed years ago, but instead of 40 to 50 signs, he’ll put up about 20. Preston says that quite a few of their customers stop by to pick up a tree on their way south for the winter because Virginia is one of the last states they can get the kind of tree they want for the perfect Christmas.
Visit Belmont Christmas Tree Farm at www.belmontchristmastreefarm.com.
Building family traditions
by Sally Colby