For nine days each year, Wilford Salsberry and his partners offer Fulton County residents the joyous experience of selecting their perfect Christmas tree. What their customers don’t see is the year-long labor of love behind the joy.
The 77-year-old Delta resident, who sports a full, white Santa beard, operates Salsberry Christmas Trees, one of the last remaining Yuletide tree farms in the area. Located at 4595 County Road M, the 10-acre farm is a hub of activity for mainly young families on several weekends beginning after Thanksgiving. The business began with Salsberry in 1976, and will continue with partners Jeremy Smallman and Andy Mattimoe after he finally doffs his signature red Christmas cap and shirt.
“I’ll work the farm until I can’t do it anymore,” he said.
When that day comes, Salsberry will miss what attracts him most to the Christmas farm – the people, and more specifically, the children. He enjoys watching them continue a long-held tradition of selecting a free sucker from the branches of a tree in the main area of the farm’s three connected holiday shops, and free pencils from a special board.
“Those kids remember that every year,” he said.
It’s a fun business for Salsberrry to operate, and he’s kept it simple over four decades by offering one price for every tree – presently $34 – regardless of size or girth. Under that policy, the 12-foot and 13-foot trees go quickly, often leaving only 5-foot and 6-foot trees by the final weekend.
“We don’t want to measure them, we want you to take the tree that you want. We’ve had no complaints about the price at all,” Salsberry said.
The farm, which is open this Saturday and Sunday, has about 8,000 Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Concolor Fir, Norway Spruce, and Fraser Fir trees available. Customers cut their own, then often browse the handicap-accessible shops which carry gifts, antiques, and tree decorations and supplies. What trees remain after this weekend continuing growing for the next season.
Sales have been good, and can be attributed to Salsberry’s standing as one of very few Christmas tree farms remaining.
“The owners have become aged, and nobody wants to take over,” Salsberry said. “It’s too much work. If I didn’t have two young men taking over, my business would be over, too.”
He leaves most of the physical labor to Smallman and Mattimoe, both in their 30s and with full-time careers. They begin the part-time farm work in the spring, clearing debris from the previous season and planting about 800 trees, priced at $3 each, in April. During summer months they prune the grown trees for insects and disease, shear them by hand for shaping purposes, and manage them with weed control. The fall is reserved for continued maintenance.
“It’s pretty laborious,” said Mattimoe, who has worked there since he was a teenager. “We sit all day (at our jobs), so it’s nice to get outside and use our muscles. Is it worth all the hard work? Yes, absolutely. It’s nice being involved in the Christmas spirit year-round.”
The trees need about 13 years to grow fully to a height of seven or eight feet. During that time, even with the partners’ concerted efforts, two to three percent of the trees will be destroyed by insects and disease, and one to two percent by drought.
Salsberry bought his farm in 1965, and grew corn, wheat, and beans for 51 years before retiring two years ago. He started the Christmas business with 1,000 saplings on one of 10 acres of sandy soil at the urging of his former high school agriculture teacher.
“It’s almost impossible to grow anything on it,” he said of the soil, but the teacher assured him trees were a good fit.
Now each year, “Everything depends on the weather. We pray for all the weekends to be good,” Salsberry added.
The tree farm has a base of loyal customers spanning three generations, and some new ones since other tree farms have closed. Among his regulars is a family that has come tree-shopping for 38 years.
“When you’ve got little kids, it’s fun to come out with them and cut your own tree. And when they have kids of their own, they’ll come back,” Salsberry said. “They like the pine smell in the house at Christmastime. It’s just the idea of having a real tree.”
At a time in life where money is not his major concern, he operates the Christmas tree farm for the pleasure it brings him.
“I don’t care if they buy anything,” Salsberry said of visitors. “If they just come to see me and walk around, that’s fine. We have a sign that says, ‘You come as strangers, and you leave as friends.’ That about describes the whole thing.”
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.