LAUREL SPRINGS, NC – Joe Freeman fell in love with the Christmas tree business when he was a teenager and worked on Guilford County retail lots for the Wagoner brothers, pioneers of North Carolina’s Christmas tree industry.

“I like seeing people come out and pick out a tree, whether on a retail lot or on a Christmas tree farm,” Freeman said. “It’s a big part of the holiday tradition for many families.”

Today Freeman raises Christmas trees, almost entirely Fraser firs, on several hundred acres of owned and leased land in Ashe County, NC. He sells them on the farm as U-cut, at three retail lots in central North Carolina and wholesale – in total, some 20,000 trees per year.

Freeman’s not sure when, but sometime soon – if he hasn’t already – he’ll reach the milestone of half a million trees grown and sold.

Like his mentors the Wagoners, Freeman is a pioneer of his own right. He is working to develop cultivars of Fraser fir which offer superior genetics. He does this in part by managing a Fraser fir seed orchard for a grower’s co-op. In his own operation he is also grafting upwards of 8,000 trees annually with Phytophthora-resistant rootstocks in the hopes of combating the soil-borne disease that takes out up to 20% of his plantings.

The seed co-op began in 2000 under the guidance of John Frampton, NC State professor emeritus and Christmas tree geneticist. The seed orchard is seven acres and has over 1,000 seed trees representing 29 varieties of Fraser fir.

While an own-rooted seed orchard would take 20 to 25 years to produce seed, this orchard began producing seed in 2011 because it used grafted material in its original plantings (Fraser fir scion material on Fraser fir rootstock). The goal of the seed orchard is to produce trees with better growth rates, better needle density and better needle retention.

Freeman is optimistic about the success of the co-op’s seed orchard as well as the efforts of the Upper Mountain Research Station, another seed orchard being guided by current NC State Christmas tree geneticist Justin Whitehill.

Joe Freeman raises many species of trees in the seedling nursery at Mistletoe Meadows. Photo by Karl H. Kazaks

For about 15 years, Freeman has been grafting Fraser fir scion material onto rootstock of species with Phytophthora resistance – primarily Canaan fir and Momi fir root stock. The trees are grafted in spring and then field planted in autumn. Canaan fir, a close cousin to the Fraser, is only about 75% resistant to Phytophthora root rot. Momi fir is more resistant but there is less rootstock of it available.

Freeman has learned lessons in grafting over the years. “The diameter of the scion material needs to be the same diameter as the rootstock,” he noted.

What’s more, even though you can harvest scion material from a tree for two to three years, “the younger the scion material, the higher the likelihood the graft will be successful … The grafting part of the puzzle is still evolving.”

Mistletoe Meadows grows its own seedlings – not just Fraser fir but also Canaan, Momi and Turkish fir (which showcases a nice dark color but which is slower to mature than Fraser fir), Colorado blue spruce, Leland cypress, white pine and more. The seedling beds are all raised to help prevent the occurrence of Phytophthora. The seedling area is also fenced to keep out deer.

In addition to Phytophthora, other challenges Freeman contends with include hemlock scale, balsam twig aphid and spruce spider mites, the pressures of which varies depending on the season.

Freeman first moved to Ashe County in the late 1980s to manage a Christmas tree farm for the Wagoners. He planted his own first acre of trees in 1988. One of those specimens was harvested in 2007 and stood in the Blue Room of the White House, when Freeman was named National Grand Champion Grower. Freeman has won other awards over the years, including North Carolina Grand Champion Grower in 2023.

Today, the original farm is on its fifth or sixth rotation of trees. The team includes 17 employees who work from March through Christmas. Fourteen are long-term migrant workers. A harvest team also comes to the farm in early October to gear up for the wreath and garland business and to cut trees.

Freeman closes his three retail lots about a week before Christmas to permit his workers with families in Mexico to return home prior to the holiday.

“It takes a long time to grow Christmas trees,” Freeman said. “You work 12 years to grow a crop, then it sells within two weeks.

“But it’s worth it, because trees are an emotionally important part of so many family’s holiday seasons.”

by Karl H. Kazaks