Caroline and her cousin Molly used to hang around and watch the local boys cut down the Christmas trees and haul them off to the trucks. Caroline's father, Gary Edwards, has been in the Christmas tree business for 30 years, including the 12 years he was a teacher. He and her uncle own the Elk River Evergreen tree farm, one mile from the Tennessee line. One day when the girls were 16, Molly spoke up and asked why girls couldn't work, too. Before they knew it, they were counting the trees loaded up on the trucks (about 600) or standing out in the field, helping to work the machine that wraps the trees up.
"It was pretty hard work," Caroline says. "I was kind of mad at her for a while." But over the years, Caroline has found she can't stay away.
Caroline moved back to the mountains this fall after six years in Chapel Hill, where she went to college. It wasn't a hard decision to move back to her tight-knit family, she says. "I just felt like I was missing some things that I should have been a part of." Part of what she missed was being on the farm. Even during her college years, she went home several times during the harvest season to help out. Now she lives in Boone and is working on a masters degree in childhood development. A small, five-foot Christmas tree stands in her apartment there. She's been working on the "choose and cut" lot all season, alongside her sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. "It's a lot of fun," she says.
Not much has changed over the years. These days a visa program brings Mexican workers up during harvest season; the same workers have been coming to the Edwards' farm for the past eight years. But the families still put in long hours at farms in this area of North Carolina. "It's kind of like a community thing," Caroline says. "The whole community is doing it at the same time."
A Christmas tree farm is busy from March to December. Frasier fir saplings arrive from Washington state in March and are planted and cared for until the harvest season. From the first of November through mid-December, the roads are clogged with tractor trailers hauling thousands of trees to points all over the country. Elk River Evergreen supplies trees to Lowe's stores. Their farm fills about 10 truckloads a week.
It takes about seven years for a tree to grow, at the rate of about one foot per year, and they harvest 20,000 trees a year. "So at any one time there could be 130,000 to 150,000 trees in the field." Sometimes the farms work together to make their customers happy. The biggest tree Elk River sold this year was a 17-footer for a YMCA camp on the coast. It was ordered from a neighbor's farm and carried away in a U-Haul truck.
The "choose and cut" lot got started about three years ago. People come from the other side of Tennessee, from Virginia and as far as Florida. "We have a lot of people who come and want to cut their own tree and they bring this little bitty saw," she says. One family friend overestimated his strength when he tried to carry a 10-foot tree by himself from the car to the house. "A 10-foot tree probably weighs 90 to 100 pounds," Caroline says. "He thought he could balance it over his shoulder. He just fell backwards and broke it."
Saturday was the last day of harvesting trees. At her parents' home, a 10-foot tree stands in the living room and a seven-foot bonus tree is in another room. This year, like every year, she and her sisters will get special ornaments from their mother. Their hard work done for they year, they can sit back and enjoy the pine scent. "I love that smell," she says. "Our whole house smells like it, and all of our cars do."