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Many choose to cut down their tree

It’s not just about the perfect Christmas tree.

The people who converge upon local tree farms, tromping through acres of carefully manicured trees until they find “it” n the one that is fat, round and tall enough to grace their homes n aren’t just searching for the perfect Christmas tree.

They want the whole experience that a tree farm can offer, said Shirley Nelson, owner of Zuni Tree Farm in nearby Isle of Wight County.

Two are open in Suffolk this holiday season: Ehrenzeller’s Tree Farm and the new kid on the block, Santa’s Forest and Nursery. Statewide, there are more than 1,600 Christmas tree farms harvesting nearly 1.7 million trees this year, according to a state Web site.

“Coming out to the farm and chopping down your own tree becomes a tradition for many families,” Nelson said. “A lot of people like the idea of walking around on the farm and picking out their tree.

“We have people who bring their saws and video cameras. They ask us to take pictures of them chopping down their tree.”

Bret Ehrenzeller, whose family has run an 85-acre tree farm on Manning Road for more than two decades, agreed.

“It’s about the family experience,” he said. “Coming out here, wandering through the fields, gives family members an opportunity to bond.

“Our world today is so busy … and those times are pretty rare these days.”

Generations of families from across Hampton Roads have made coming to Ehrenzeller’s to pick out their tree a holiday tradition, he added.

“We have customers who came here as children coming back with their own kids to get trees,” he said.

Ehrenzeller’s opened the day after Thanksgiving and will remain open daily through Christmas. Things operate a little differently on Sundays, a day the family traditionally spend together after church.

Although the tree farm is open and people are welcome to come get their trees, the Ehrenzeller’s will not be around. Instead, the family depends on people’s honesty to make the system work.

“There are directions and saws out there,” Ehrenzeller said. “We depend on the honor system. People can feel free to come get their trees and drop their money in the box out there.”

Ehrenzeller’s has a variety of trees n including white pines, Douglas and fraser firs, red cedars and three types of spruce trees. Most range in height from 6 to 12 feet.

Kathy and Mike Helvestine, who live just a mile from the North Carolina line, will be opening five acres of trees to shoppers this holiday season. The couple, along with their sons, Paul, 15, and Kevin, 20, is looking forward to their debut season in the Christmas tree business.

Shoppers may have to travel a little further to reach Santa’s Forest. But, said Kathy Helvestine, they will find some “extras” that may not be offered at other tree farms n free coffee and cider, a greenhouse, an arts and crafts tent, and custom-decorated fresh wreaths.

“We are trying to offer other things,” she said.

“We are a little leery because it’s our first year but we are hoping to do well.”

Besides for white pines, Santa’s Forest will be selling blue cypress trees and fraser firs imported from the Virginia mountains.

Nationwide, the number of people using fresh trees has been on the decline in recent years. But Nelson says her family’s tree farm n which is opening five acres of white pines this year n is bucking that trend.

“Our sales increased 23 percent last year,” Nelson said. “We opened last weekend and we have already had several customers. But our busiest time will be the first two weekends in December.”

Most trees sold at all three local farms cost $30 or less.