@story and image MARCUS COKER
A family, not all that different from yours or mine, parks their car on Christmas Tree Lane in Rudy, and steps into the frosty air. The adults stop to zip their jackets and bury their hands in their pockets, but the children are already off and running. Pine needles crunch beneath their sneakers as they search row by row for the perfect tree. On it they will hang their favorite Hallmark ornaments, as well as the ones they made from Popsicle sticks.
For Buddy and Connie Lollis, owners of Lollis Christmas Tree Farm, Christmas actually begins in February. At least that’s when Buddy, who’s seventy-eight, starts planting trees. “I thought about retiring, but I have diabetes, and I need the exercise,” says Buddy. Connie jokes that he works thirteen months out of the year to get the trees ready—planting, spraying, and trimming. It takes five years to grow a six foot tree, and the average ones are eight or nine.
Buddy and Connie opened to the public for “tagging” the weekend before Thanksgiving. The most dedicated tree hunters show up first, ready to survey the thousands of Virginia pines on the eighteen acre lot. Some of them look for hours, marking their favorites with a scarf or a glove. Some even bring a picnic lunch to eat amongst the timber. When they find what they’re looking for, a reservation tag marked with the buyer’s name is hung on one of the branches, and the trunk is painted orange. This process ensures they can return at a later time to pick up the right tree.
“Everybody’s looking for something different,” says Buddy. Some want smaller trees for apartments or trailers. Others want large ones, as big as sixteen feet tall, for houses with high ceilings. “I had one guy say, ‘I want the thinnest tree you’ve got, one you can see through from any direction,’” says Buddy, who helped the man find just such a tree, ideal for displaying a large collection of glass ornaments.
The tree farm opened full time for tagging and pick up on Thanksgiving Day. “When we first started, Buddy took his vacation to sell the trees. Thanksgiving got to be a big weekend, and a big tradition,” says Connie. “People have their dinner at noon time, then come out to walk off their meal and pick a tree. Or some pick a tree first, then go home and eat dinner in the evening. It’s such a family thing.
“This year, it’s over four weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas, which is really too long for a fresh tree to last,” Connie says. She recommends three weeks from the time the tree is cut until it’s taken down, adding that many of the live trees sold in stores are actually cut in August or September. They are then kept either in a snow bank or refrigeration until they are shipped across the country and sold. One advantage to buying locally is that the trees are fresher. Plus, there are more to choose from.
The process of buying a tree is simple, although deciding upon one might not be, especially for families. “If there’s one kid, they pick out one tree. If there are four kids, they’ll pick out four trees,” says Buddy as he smiles and describes the adventure in more detail. Upon arrival, the tree shoppers are given a long plastic pole, which is used to measure the trees and determine their prices. The trees are priced by the foot, ranging from $10 to just under $100. The average tree sells for $25 to $40. Also, Buddy and Connie sell homemade wreaths, which sell for $25.
Once they find “the one,” the shoppers turn the pole—painted orange at the bottom—upside down. A spotter, who stands on a rooftop above the tree line, looks for the orange poles and sends someone on a four-wheeler to help. The tree is then cut down and hauled back to base on a trailer.
The trunk of the tree is then placed in a machine called a Shakee, which shakes out the dead pine needles. (When Buddy opened the farm in 1990, he shook the trees by hand.) Next, the tree is run through a baler, which wraps the tree in netting, holding down the branches and making the tree both smaller and more manageable. Lastly the tree is loaded, ready to be taken home. The farm provides baling twine to tie down the trees, but recommends customers bring their own blankets or other padding to help cushion the trees, especially if they’re being tied to the top of a car. Most people bring trucks or SUVs for transportation, but one man comes every year in a Porsche convertible. “He stands the tree up behind the seat, throws on his jacket, and takes off,” says Buddy.
Live trees, just like artificial ones, need a tree stand. For those who don’t have one already, Buddy and Connie sell them. The stands for live trees have a basin which holds water, necessary for keeping the tree alive throughout the holiday season. “A lot of people want to add aspirin or 7 UP or sugar, but the Christmas Tree Growers Association says water works just as well, if not better,” says Connie.
Once a tree is cut down, its sap begins to harden at the base of the trunk. “It’s part of nature’s defense system,” says Connie. If the tree is watered while the sap is still hard, the water won’t enter the tree’s trunk. Buddy and Connie tell their customers to water their Christmas trees with warm water the first couple of times, which allows the sap to melt and the pores to open. After that, room-temperature water is fine. Additionally, if the tree is not put up soon after being purchased, it should either be kept in a bucket of warm water, or a half-inch of its trunk should be cut off before it’s put up. Just like the warm water, cutting the trunk removes the hard sap.
In addition to keeping a live tree watered, customers need to keep their trees away from fireplaces and heating vents, either on the floor or the ceiling. What’s important is that the tree doesn’t dry out. “If the needles get brittle, I’d take it out of the house,” says Buddy.
Because of the time involved in picking out and caring for a live tree, an artificial tree may be an easier option for some people. They can be used year after year, and it’d seem that they are a more environmentally-friendly choice. However, most artificial trees are imported, which adds to their environmental footprint. Plus, many artificial trees are non-biodegradable since they are manufactured with metal and petroleum-based products.
What Buddy and Connie offer is an experience, the chance to hand-pick your holiday centerpiece, to start (or continue) your own tradition. “People come from everywhere, as far as Tulsa and Dallas,” says Connie. “They grew up here and come back to visit for the holidays. We have one customer who’s been coming since she was six years old. Now she’s married and has a six-year-old of her own.”
As the children prepare to leave the tree farm, Connie Lollis hands each of them a candy cane. Smiles break across their faces, and that makes Connie (sometimes called The Candy Cane Lady) smile too. This is her favorite part of the job. Everyone who leaves with a tree takes away a small miracle — the beginning of Christmas.
Open daily through December 22 from 10 am until dark.
Cash preferred. Checks accepted.
For more information, call 479.474.2102.
FROM NORTHWEST ARKANSAS
South on 540 to Exit 24 (Rudy)
Turn right onto Highway 282
Go just over 3 miles (through Rudy) to Highway 60
Turn right on Highway 60 and go a half mile
Turn left onto 348 and go just over 3 miles
Follow the signs
FROM VAN BUREN
Take Highway 59 North to Figure Five
Turn right on Highway 348
Go 3 miles and turn left on Christmas Tree Lane (dirt road)
Go a quarter mile
Signs along the way
FOR TIPS ON DISPOSING YOUR TREE