Local Tree Farms Face Iffy Future

Posted: December 5, 2012

Delmas Ratliff of Timberville says that, after 35 years of growing, it’s about time for him to call it quits. Several local tree farms have gone out of business in recent years as the job has become too much for aging farmers. (Photo by Candace Sipos)
Ratliff, seen here in front of his tree-wrapping machine, says he’d “be in the poor house years ago if [his family] relied on the trees” for income. (Photo by Candace Sipos)
Pick-Your-Own Tree Farms

Rockingham County

Ratliff’s Christmas Trees, Timberville, 896-8442

Evergreen Tree Farm, Keezletown, 269-2691, www.evergreenchristmastreefarm.net

Page County

Valley Star Farm, Luray, 860-8040, www.valleystarfarm.com

Shenandoah County

Helsley’s Christmas Trees, Edinburg, 984-4903, 975-1234, www.virginiachristmastrees.org/farms/helsley/index.html

Mountain View Farm, Edinburg, 459-5584, www.virginiachristmastree.org/farms/mtnview

Pine Hill Christmas Tree Farm, 740-8998

TIMBERVILLE — Delmas Ratliff stood next to a Canaan Fir tree, taller than he, and boasting thick, silvery needles.

With a few gaping spaces near the top, it hasn’t and never will completely fill out, he says.

“We get one of these trees nobody else wants,” he said quickly, smiling and looking out over the 20 acres full of trees that people do want. He’ll pick one to chop and put in his own home, which is just a few feet behind the first row of firs, in a matter of days.

“They smell like oranges,” he said, explaining that the best way to catch the scent is to rub the needles, then smell your hand.

He grew Scotch and White pine trees for years before discovering the many benefits of the little-known Canaan, including the citrus scent, longevity well past the holiday season, ability to grow in lower elevations than other firs and lack of attraction to harmful aphids.

After 35 years of growing Christmas trees, Ratliff has found the perfect plant.

But it seems increasingly more evident that one has to have a passion for holiday cheer to continue raising Christmas trees year after year, and that passion can only last for so long.

‘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.

Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or csipos@dnronline.com

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