Christmas trees are common as grass; growers aren’t as visible
By Lon Leatherland; ran in Alleghany News
Knowing nothing about the tree-growing process, a visit to Homer and Bonnie Sides’ operation seemed a good place to begin. Their corporate office is a single-wide trailer, which is quite different than what I’d imagined. But, then, so is Bonnie.
Dressed to the nines, she could have stepped out of a Cosmopolitan magazine. This picture of elegance leaned back in the sofa’s corner, talking with a young lady.
Shirley Cornett pointed me down the hill to where “a tall man wearing a cap” would be. He wasn’t there, but an employee radioed that I wanted to talk to him. Lewis Farmer appeared several minutes later, listened to my intentions and suggested that I follow him across the street. He climbed onto a tractor seat and drove to the road, making three cell phone calls between the shop and Grandview Drive, forty yards away. In less than five minutes he’d assigned tasks to several employees and we were talking.
An Alleghany native, Lewis worked with Sparta Industries for thirty years, joining the Sides’ organization in 1994 as Supervisor. He’s a very busy, but remarkably calm, gentleman.
Homer and Bonnie didn’t walk down the wedding aisle and step into overnight success. Theirs was a humble start together. He drove a cement truck at the time, and dreamed of starting a ready-mix concrete company of his own. To make ends meet, they grew watermelons. Bonnie drove a car loaded down with watermelons and sold them while Homer sold melons out of the back of his pickup truck. Little by little, the family’s future turned toward Christmas trees.
Among the county’s first tree-growers, Homer and his brother, Bruner, started planting in the 50s. They grew white pines at first, “shearing” them for fullness, then changed to Fraser firs when that species captured the market.
Homer ran the tractor and Bonnie planted seedlings from the “setter,” a towed, trailer-like planter. Their daughters carefully toe-tamped the dirt around every tree. Lewis explained Homer’s logical approach to mountainside planting.
“Have you ever watched a cow walk around these hills? She always takes the easiest way along the hillside, not up and down the mountain. That’s the way Homer taught me to plant trees, along the hill.” Lewis told of the ribbing Homer took from his fellow cement truck drivers, who spent their spare time fishing, hunting or playing golf. But the determined tree-grower got the last laugh. “Them ol” boys are probably still driving cement trucks,” he said, perhaps hiding a satisfied grin.
Homer’s dad needled him, too, about the way he reinvested his earnings into more land and seedlings, but his success soon outlasted the taunts. Now he grows 1,500 to 1,800 trees to the acre, and has 2,000 acres of tree farms scattered in Alleghany and Ashe, as well as in two nearby Virginia counties.
Lewis described the work in detail, tossing out some unfamiliar terms. “First come the seedbeds. It takes about three years to reach the seedling stage. Those go into “lineout” beds, where they grow for another two years or so. By then they’re about a foot tall. Most trees are cut at about six or eight feet, seven years later, but we’ve sold some twenty-footers, too. Shearing all our trees into the proper shape takes two or three months.”
Several years ago an unexpectedly late freeze clobbered Alleghany’s Christmas trees, killing new growth. The Sides’ operation suffered a little damage, but none to the “big stuff,” which grew well with the early spring rains.
From what I saw and Lewis’ comments, it’s obvious that the mountains’ tree-growing efforts would never have come this far without the labors of a large Hispanic workforce.
“We’ve got really hard workers,” Lewis said matter-of-factly. “I just tell ‘em what needs to be done, then get out of the way so they can do it. By the time I come back, they’re through and looking for something else to do.”
But I’ll always carry an image of the Bonnie Sides I met briefly, spending endlessly hot and dusty days on the hard steel seat of a “tree setter,” poking little green trees into the ground as her girls tap-danced around each one.