Janette Ziegler and her husband Charles might’ve pioneered a movement 50 years ago, though, if they did, the couple say they “didn’t take no notice.”
Rather, purchasing 330 acres in the Cathey’s Creek area, near the mountain cove they had long called home, felt a bit defeating. Charles wanted to find some land up in British Columbia, says Janette. He figured logging and farming could afford a good-enough lifestyle. “‘And for whither thou goest, I will go,’” his wife says, quoting faithful Ruth from the Old Testament.
But an older brother lost his life to a tractor accident, and parents grew frail. The land of their roots seemed to plead for their hesitation, and so they stayed. In Pisgah National Forest, the couple settled a plot flanked by logging roads, considered rearing cattle, and then did quite well spawning trout for sale. But the rural parcel was suited for a crop even less common than freshwater fish: Frasier firs.
“I don’t recall many people farming Christmas trees [back then],” says Janette. She pauses to readjust an aching knee. “Maybe a settlement or two in the Balsam Grove area, but none in our parts.” Fifteen acres of bare hillside amid deep groves provided the ideal plot.
Half a century later, Ziegler’s Tree Farm (formerly High Valley Trout and Tree Farm) is one of nine Christmas tree farms in Transylvania County. Still, the evergreens feel a bit out of place so far south. Conifers tend to stay sequestered in Western North Carolina’s High Country, two-and-a-half hours north in the Boone area — in fact, Watauga County is known as the Southeast’s “choose-and-cut capital.” There, colder temperatures turn the boughs a deep jade, almost blue.
But the Zieglers changed that trend, unofficially at least. Growing in the more southerly areas of the Blue Ridge requires acidic soil, as “most green things” do, says Janette — but the saplings must also take root on an incline. The angle pulls water downward to prevent rot, which is especially important in Brevard, where annual rainfall (at least in a non-drought-stricken year) is near double the national average.
However, the slope also increases the strain of cultivation on the farmer. Charles once surveyed the terrain by foot, a bucket of fertilizer banging against his hip. Now 88, he spends his time visiting the plot and, quite literally, reaping what he sowed. Three of the Zieglers’ four children run the farm, but the labor isn’t any easier. There’s weeding and pruning and shearing. The trees don’t just maintain that conical shape on their own, notes Glenn Parker of nearby Parker Tree Farm. And if fertilized too early, they turn out unsightly. “Gotta wait till after the frost,” he advises.
Parker’s 137-acre lot sits just seven miles from Rosman Highway, even closer to Upstate South Carolina than High Valley. Back in the ’60s, his farm dabbled in white pines and Norway spruces, but soon fell back on Frasier firs. The evergreens took root fast, says Parker. After just four years, the production was up and running (that’s a whole three years faster than most).
“The soil was rich from former farming,” he notes while stacking firewood. “And the land being set at a good slope didn’t hurt.”
Warm temperatures, relative to higher elevations, do complicate the season, however. Chill keeps the needles shiny. Going any lower in latitude than Brevard, say to Saluda, would churn up dull trees that “may not even survive,” says Parker.
There’s also a slew of mites specific to firs, just “waiting to creep up on you,” he says. Fortunately, neither Parker nor the Zieglers have tussled with them. Rather, in years past, rattlesnakes have posed the biggest threat. They like to bathe on the hillsides when the sun is just right.
Because of the rattlers, customers cannot “tag,” or claim, their Christmas trees until late August and early September at High Valley. Then, families from as far away as Florida flood the area, examining boughs and overall shape. Maybe they also take a minute to enjoy the oaks and poplars, just starting to take on their fall tints.
The Zieglers’ trees range from six feet to just shy of 16. Growth does depend on the weather, though. “Sometimes, when we’re short on rain, they just need a good bath,” says Janette.
Guests return starting in late November, some for the 30th consecutive year, to have their trees cut for Christmas. Children chase each other around the mountain, just as the Zieglers’ sons and daughters once did. Charles reminisces about his days of being a restless jack-of-all-trades, always vying for that cold self-sufficiency promised in Canada. Janette also remembers that earlier time. Like most folks, she sometimes compares the what-is to the what-if.
“I wonder what we’d be doing at this time, [while] I’m making soup and answering the phone,” she says with a laugh. “It hasn’t been an easy life, but boy, it’s been awful interesting.”
Ziegler’s Tree Farm is located at 1141 Ziegler Road in Brevard, open 8am-6pm Monday through Saturday, 1-6pm Sunday. Call 828-883-3951 for more information. Parker Tree Farm is located at 1074 Lyons Mountain Road, also in Brevard, open 8am-5pm Monday through Saturday, 1:30-5pm Sunday; 828-553-7193.