Christmas Tree Farm Keeps Owner Busy All Year
This is the time of year when people start thinking about Christmas trees. Matthew Gay, though, has been thinking about them all year.
Gay is the owner of Gay’s Christmas Tree Farm on Tobacco Road in South Augusta. While this is the season his business gains the most prominence, it is a business that he tends to diligently the other 11 months of the year.
“It’s definitely requires year-round work,” Gay said.
He is in his 17th year of growing the trees on an intentional business and 15th year of selling them. He did, however, have a short run in the Christmas tree business when he first moved to his property 30 years ago. He began cutting down the Virginia pines on the property and selling them by the road during the Christmas season.
“But I didn’t have a rotation (of planting new trees) so when I’d cut them all down, I was out of the tree business,” he said.
He liked the idea of being a tree farmer, though, so he ventured back into it with more intentionality 17 years ago.
“I couldn’t tell you why I did that, it was just something different,” he said.
He did get a bit of advice from the late Bill Murray, founder of the Georgia Christmas Tree Association – don’t expect to have any other hobbies.
“He said there’s not a lot of income in it, it’ll be a labor of love,” Gay recalled. “Now that I’ve been in it 17 years, I know what he was talking about.”
Gay is employed full-time at Savannah River Site, which has allowed him to keep the Christmas tree farm going without having to rely on its income.
Still, it is a business like any other, with costs for labor, sales tax, equipment and marketing, while trying to sell at a price that brings in money rather than losing it. It was a learning process.
“I learned I need to grow that tree as fast as I can as cheap as I can, that’s the business part of it,” he said. “Then I had to learn the marketing part of it and then learn the financial management. For about four weeks I’ve got money coming in, but the other 11 months money is going out, so I had to learn to budget.”
Gay grows two varieties of trees – Murray Cypress and Carolina Sapphire, both of which thrive in his sandy soil. He also imports Frasier pines from North Carolina in November to supplement his sales. The Murray Cypress is the leading Christmas tree in the southeast because it stays fresh for two months or longer, doesn’t shed needles and has minimal smell, making it ideal for people with allergies.
A walk around Gay’s Christmas Tree Farm helps one realize how much of a business it is to grow Christmas trees. The trees are planted in rows with wide aisles of short-cut grass between them. That helps air flow, an important component in controlling a potentially devastating fungus. Gay also sprays the trees every six weeks to prevent the fungus.
Irrigation lines run throughout the acreage, although a good rain helps the trees grow the fastest.
“I’ve got irrigation, but you can’t beat the good Lord’s rain,” he said.
He also sprays the trees with a non-toxic dye that helps them retain their bright green color.
Trimming is also important, both to stimulate growth and to help the trees attain the proper Christmas tree shape. He does all the trimming himself.
At the end of every Christmas season, he pulls out the stumps of the trees that were sold, prepares the soil and plants a fresh batch of trees to keep the rotation going. It takes three years for a tree to reach six or seven feet. Gay said the six- to eight-foot range is the premium tree, although he has some that range up to 12 to 14 feet. Those are primarily purchased by businesses and churches with large interior areas.
He currently has about 1,200 trees in the field that are ready to sell, plus he’ll bring in the Frasier pines. He said about half of the customers want to cut their own, while the other half want to buy those already cut. Whether they’re trees cut from his farm, or the imported Frasier pines, Gay keeps the base immersed in water to keep them from drying out. The Murray Cypress can “drink” up to two gallons of water daily.
“I do all I can to keep the trees fresh,” he said.
His hard work has paid off by making him a four-time winner of the award for best Christmas tree in Georgia.
When the Christmas season rolls around, Gay has plenty of help from his wife, Angela, friends and relatives, plus hired hands, three who have been with him for 15 years. But he does more than just sell trees.
“You can get a tree anywhere,” he said. “I provide an experience.”
In addition to being able to choose and cut their own trees, customers also can participate in a hayride or relax around a bonfire while drinking free hot chocolate and eating free popcorn.
It works, because he has annual customers come from as far away as Savannah and Columbia. He’s also provided trees for the Georgia Governor’s Mansion.
“Like a farmer when it’s time to harvest, I really have to hustle during this time of year,” Gay said. “But I enjoy it. I live for this time of year.”