Families flock to farms for an evergreen holiday ritual

The combination of warm weather and a Sunday without a Ravens game triggered a line of cars that bumped up a gravel and dirt driveway to Doyle's Christmas Tree Farm in White Hall on Nov. 27.

Michael Doyle and his son, Dan, wore T-shirts on the 65-degree day and introduced themselves to newcomers and greeted repeat customers like family.

Joe and Shannon Comegna and their sons, 10-year-old Kyle and Ryan, 5, knew the routine after chopping down a tree at Doyle's last year.

The Middle River family picked Thanksgiving weekend to go three shopping because it was free of indoor lacrosse games or swimming lessons.

They had their pick from 6,500 Douglas firs planted on 10 acres. Michael Doyle said he normally sells about 400 trees a season. He only plants Douglas firs because they resist both bugs and diseases, he said.

Ryan Comegna clutched a handsaw the Doyles provided, but Kyle carried a secret weapon in his backpack.

"It's a battery-operated saw," said Joe, who remembered how hard it was to saw the tree trunk last year. The Doyles are fine with personal saws, even powered ones — as long as they're not chain saws.

"Dad! Mom! Here's a great one. Come see it," shouted Kyle as he stopped in front of an 8-foot beauty.

Shannon, the ultimate authority on what tree will grace their living room, didn't want to pick the first one they saw, so the family spread out and looked for more. She wanted an 8-foot tree. Not too full. Not too thin. Nice shape. Branches capable of holding heavy ornaments. Pretty much perfect.

Kyle marked the first tree by putting a clump of dried grass on its branches and then followed his parents on a quest for a fine fir.

"All of these are really, really nice," Shannon said. "We could take any one and be just fine."

After 30 minutes of weaving in and out of straight rows of trees, the family finally decided on the tree.

"When trees come in on a truck, they're all mashed down on one side and you can't see what it's like," said Joe, who brought a tape measure with him to make sure it would fit in the house. "But out here, you can see what you get."

As Kyle and Ryan squatted on the ground, Joe easily sawed through the trunk. The family loaded the tree onto a cart and walked back to where it was baled with plastic netting.

"My friends are surprised we come all the way up here, and we use a saw," said Kyle, a fourth-grader at Oliver Beach Elementary School.

His parents said they found Doyles on the Internet last year and hope to make the trip to White Hall a family tradition.

"We come out here for the kids," Joe said. "It's something they'll always remember."

Michael Doyle, 57, said his grandfather, Charles Doyle, bought the farm in 1938. Michael's father, Richard, now 82, raised dairy cows and later grew vegetables he sold at a roadside stand in Parkton.

Richard Doyle planted his first Douglas firs in 1979, and by 1986 opened for his first Christmas season.

These days, Michael Doyle and his family run the no-frills operation. They don't have wagon rides, hot chocolate or cut greens. What they do have are rows and rows of perfectly manicured trees, up to 14-feet tall.

Doyle said he mows between the trees five times a year and trims each and every tree once a year. He has enough trees in varying heights to last for another eight years and will plant another 1,000 trees in the spring.

Doyle's Christmas Tree Farm's website claims 30 million to 35 million real Christmas trees are sold in the United States each year, and 23 percent of them come from choose-and-cut tree farms.

"Most of the people, well, 99.99 percent, are happy when they come here and they're happy when the leave. That's why we do it. Customers become friends," he said as he pointed to a group of 18 adults. "They've been coming here for years and years."

The Sieminski, Salisbury, Dougherty and Rhoades families came on the Thanksgiving weekend and bought four trees — one for each family.

"This is probably our 10th year to come here," said John Sieminski, of Parkville. "We have a tradition of going to Friendly Farms after we get our trees, so it makes us pick the trees quicker, since we're all starving."

Michael Doyle said his wife, Teresa, daughter Michelle and family friends will help during the first two weekends in December, their busiest time.

"Today's a great day to be outside since it's warm, but it's fun to be here when it's cold, too," Doyle said. "It really feels like Christmas then."

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