‘Time To Give It Up’
Ratliff’s farm is one of only a few pick-your-own Christmas tree locations left in the central Valley. The local sect of agribusiness is suffering from many of the same problems other agriculture-related industries are experiencing across the nation.
Several local tree farms have gone out of business in the past few years, namely because the job is just too much work for the aging population of farmers.
But also, the occupation doesn’t pay well. Most local tree farmers will laugh if asked whether the trees account for the majority of their income.
“I’d be in the poor house years ago if we relied on the trees,” said Ratliff, 64, who only started planting trees after he retired from Dunham-Bush.
He also owned a business in Fulks Run with his brother-in-law for years and still drives a bus for Rockingham County Public Schools.
Pine Hill Christmas Farm in New Market, which had almost 10 acres full of 12,000 trees at one point, is in its final stages now. Owner Allen Harpine, 83, stopped planting seedlings about seven years ago and now only has a couple hundred of the plants left to sell.
“I’m getting too old to take care of them,” he said. “I really enjoyed it, but it’s time to give it up.”
Larry and Robin Helsley, 68 and 66, respectively, are calling this season the last for Helsley’s Christmas Trees in Edinburg.
They planted their last spruces and firs more than a decade ago at the farm that’s been in operation since 1998.
The couple got into the business when Larry Helsley retired from Dominion Resources after 30 years.
“We didn’t realize how much work was involved,” he said, noting all the stages of tree growing: planting, spraying, trimming, mowing around them all, dealing with the occasional disease outbreak and, always, more trimming.
Violet Myers, 89, started Rudolph’s Christmas Trees with her late husband, Buddy, decades ago on almost 100 acres in Timberville. About five years ago, she decided to call it quits despite much help from her three daughters, Trenna Haislop, Debbie Daily and Bonnie Flick.
“The whole story is that the family just got older,” Myers said.
She turned the tree sanctuary into farmland that’s been rented out to local farmers and donated the remaining trees.
But even after several years, “We’re still getting calls,” she said. Going out to Rudolph’s was a Christmas tradition for many.
Ratliff, for one, is amazed at how long people spend finding a tree. Families often come to walk through his fields for hours searching for the perfect Christmas tree.
“People still buy artificial trees,” he noted, “… but it’s just not the same.
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