Looking for the freshest tree?

Published 7:14 pm Saturday, December 5, 2009

Whether it’s the appeal of supporting local business, getting a fresh-cut Christmas tree or just the family bonding time that keeps the customers coming, Santa’s Forest and Nursery has been busy this week.

The Christmas tree farm on Carolina Road was so packed last weekend that some would-be buyers couldn’t get into the parking lot. Owners Mike and Kathy Helvestine credit the old-fashioned experience as a major draw for their customers.

“I think the main reason people come out to our farm versus anywhere else is the choose-and-cut,” Kathy Helvestine said. “Every year, we have found that we have more people wanting to get back into the tradition of having their kids be able to cut their own tree.”

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The Helvestines stock several varieties of tree, including pines, spruce, Leyland Cypress, Blue Ice and Fraser firs. The Fraser firs are trucked in from the mountains because they do not fare well in Hampton Roads’ hot summers, Helvestine said, but they are cut as late as possible so they will stay fresh longer.

“They’re fresh cut, and we know they are because we deal with these farmers and cutters,” Helvestine said. “That’s one reason people cut them, they want to know it’s fresh.”

The Helvestines began getting Fraser firs after many requests from customers. Fraser firs are popular because they hold ornaments well and have a pleasant scent, Helvestine said.

The Helvestines started the operation 10 years ago on a steep learning curve. They lost thousands of trees in the first few years before they got it down pat. One thing they didn’t expect was the year-round labor involved with the trees, Helvestine said, but it has been rewarding.

“It’s fun to us,” said Helvestine, who also makes wreaths, garland and decorations for sale at the farm. “Santa’s helpers” also can cut trees for customers who would rather sit in the warm greenhouse and sip the free coffee and hot chocolate. Free candy canes and coloring books are offered to children, Helvestine said.

“It’s nice to be able to see the kids enjoy themselves,” Helvestine said. “The kids just love it.”

Everything customers need is provided, including hand saws (no chainsaws allowed — too dangerous, Helvestine says), shaking, baling and loading onto customers’ vehicles.

“It’s supporting local business,” Helvestine said, although people have come from as far away as Jarratt and Kitty Hawk, N.C. to buy trees. “There are a lot of people that do want to keep it Virginia-grown.”

The Helvestines try to keep their prices reasonable, even with the family time and free extras included.

“We try to keep our prices in line with, say, Walmart and Food Lion and such,” Helvestine said. “We want people to be able to have the adventure of cutting down their own tree but staying within the price, too.”

Surprisingly, the recession hasn’t slowed the choose-and-cut Christmas tree business, Helvestine said. If anything, the last two years have gotten better.

“We thought business was going to be bad, but last year was just as good,” Helvestine said. “We’ve had such a demand over the weekend that we didn’t expect. We just weren’t prepared for it.”

When choosing a tree, Helvestine said the most important factors are budget and space constraints. Tree-shoppers should consider if their favorite tree will fit in their house, and if they can afford it.

Next, many people look for freshness, shape and their favorite species — which Helvestine said seems to be a tradition in many families.

“It has a lot to do with what you’re brought up with,” Helvestine said.

Santa’s Forest and Nursery is located at 5151 Carolina Road. Call 986-2213 or e-mail santaforest@gmail.com for more information.