OUT IN THE MARYLAND HIGH COUNTRY, JUST EAST OF WEST VIRGINIA and just west of the Eastern Continental Divide, a shrewd judge of tree flesh named Doc Custer has stopped his Chevy pickup on a grassy ridge to survey his empire below.
There are almost 90 acres down there, most of them thick and prickly with 60,000 evergreens. The trees within Doc Custer's view are arrayed in the neatest of rows, each section marked discreetly by an identifying tag: white pine, Scotch pine, blue spruce, Douglas fir, Fraser fir. They range in size from young seedlings only 4 inches tall to whoppers at 8 and 9 feet. On a slope to Doc's right, a stand of several hundred red pine, 40 and 50 feet tall, anchor his spread and offer silent, majestic testimony to his years of experience. Doc planted those trees back in 1956 -- half his life ago -- when he first started this farm; for decades, the Christmas of thousands of Marylanders has started right here on these deep green Garrett County slopes under Doc's practiced, probing eyes.
In another century Dr. Franklin D. Custer, retired veterinarian, might have sat on a horse as he paused on this ridge. His name probably would have been something like Ben Cartwright and right now he'd be getting ready to go down there to join Little Joe and Hoss for an afternoon of cowpunching. Instead, even as he eases his Chevy into four-wheel drive and jounces down the rutted side of his little mountain, the boys below have already fired up their chain saws. Little clouds of blue smoke puff into the brisk November air, dissipating quickly against a dazzling blue sky. It is only a week before Thanksgiving, and the trees are green and ripe and ready for the roundup.
"I won't sleep much at night the next six weeks," says Doc as he heads the truck toward his hired hands. "I'll be watching the weather reports. If it rains we'll either have to put raincoats on these fellas or send 'em home. We had 10 inches of snow one year and we couldn't do anything for four or five days. In this business, 85 percent of the money comes in in six weeks."
That has been the nature of this business ever since the 1940s when public demand for shapely Christmas trees -- as opposed to just any old tree plucked from a forest -- prompted the first tree plantations to spring up in Pennsylvania. It's a business with a short selling season preceded by long years of work. It takes eight to 10 years to produce a Christmas tree, and during those years growers must constantly guard against insects, diseases and weeds. They must amass a barn full of specialized tractors and balers and hydraulic spades and mowers. They must learn the critical skill of tree pruning -- one false snip of the shears and a potentially beautiful tree ends up as the kind of reject that "Peanuts" comic strip hero Charlie Brown usually ends up with. Growers go about their work knowing full well that they are not simply trying to raise a Christmas tree; they are seeking to raise a perfect Christmas tree.
"Ninety-nine percent of people want a perfectly symmetrical cone-shaped tree," says Jim Simms, the Garrett County extension agent for the University of Maryland. "A lot of people don't realize when they are paying $30 to $40 for a tree the time and effort that goes into this. On top of that, the grower will usually lose 20 percent of the trees they started with."
Still there are plenty of growers out there -- the largest from Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina. In fact, there are so many growers nationwide, says Mr. Simms, that "the market is flooded. In North Carolina alone there is one county that raises more trees than this whole state."
Maryland's 210 growers raise about 3 million trees a year, according to Carville Akehurst, administrative director of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association. Of those, about 150,000 trees will be harvested and sold this year.
"Maryland hasn't been the kind of state where large growers have developed," says Mr. Akehurst, noting that most of the state's farmers do not wholesale their trees to retail markets but open their acres each Christmas season to the saw-wielding public.
Most of those Maryland farmers who do wholesale their trees -- like Doc Custer out in Oakland -- come from the western end of the state. Mountainous acreage for growing is plentiful there, but, as Mr. Simms points out, wide open space is not the only requirement for jumping into the wholesale end of things.
"The whole key to the business is having a market," he says. "Doc Custer's key to success is that he's good at marketing. He has established markets and he's set up to deliver on time." DOC CUSTER IS A TALL, TRIM MAN OF 70, appropriately layered against the 20-degree weather: a sweat shirt, flannel shirt and undershirt all wrapped in the cocoon of one of those ankle-to-neck set of overalls. This one is done in the blue and black pinstripe pattern so popular with prison mattress designers, and available straight off the rack at your local hardware store.
Right now he looks very much like one of his crew, each baseball-capped and layered with two and three hooded sweat shirts below their coveralls. They know the drill perfectly. With Doc hovering nearby, they move quickly down each row, applying the buzzing saw blade to the tree trunk with precision: a quick brrrrriiippp, a tiny explosion of wood chips and splinters, a chuff of smoke and the tree is down and they've already moved onto the next.
A second crew of men follows the chain-saw gang and retrieves each tree and hauls it to the shaker and the baler, two ingenious pieces of equipment that no tree grower can afford to be without. The shaker is a vibrating metal tree stand, equipped with a rail to hold the tree in place while all the dead needles are shaken loose to the ground.
"A pine tree's needles shed in October," explains Doc as each bTC tree is hoisted onto the shaker for about a minute's worth of vibration. "You get the tree home and have all those needles fall out in the carpet. It's a nasty mess for a housewife. Not all growers shake their trees, but when the competition is like it is, retailers will ask you: 'You gonna shake those needles out of there?' "
The second machine is almost a magician's device. A wide, full tree is stuffed into one end of the fan-shaped opening, and it emerges on the other end as a slender evergreen cigar, wrapped tightly in twine and easily shippable.
As each tree is wrapped, one of the crew spray-paints the base -- a burst of green for anything over 8 feet, orange for 7 to 8, no color for 6 to 7 feet, and a spot of blue for anything 5 to 6 feet tall. Earlier, after each tree has been cut, it is also notched according to Doc's personal grading system: the lowest quality has a crossed notch in the base. The next highest, a select grade, has a single notch and the premium trees have no notch at all.
Once the trees are bound and notched and color-coded they are hauled to nearby storage piles, where they will be easily identifiable when the large trailer trucks start rolling into the farm in the next few days to haul these trees down into the city and onto corner lots.
While he keeps the prices that he charges retailers close to his vest, Doc Custer says you can expect that the tree you buy has been marked up at least twice what the retailer paid for it. Sometimes, he chuckles, it's a lot more.
"I had a fella who bought four truckloads of premium trees one year. He took half of them down to Catonsville and the other half to Dulaney Valley. And he got twice as much for the same trees in Dulaney Valley as the ones in Catonsville."
By far the most popular of his trees, he says, is the Fraser fir, a crisp, elegant tree whose needles have a bluish tinge on the underside.
"The Fraser fir has taken the East by storm," he says. "When
there's a surplus of trees on the market they are not going to be Fraser firs. They're gonna beScotch pine or white pine. Fraser firs, you could just sell them all day."
He likes them better, even, than Douglas firs, which were once considered the best of trees. But Douglas trees are sensitive to ++ salty soil and have a tendency to bloom early in the spring, making them susceptible to a late frost.
"Fraser firs hold their needles quite well," he says, "equivalent to the Douglas fir. It has a more pleasing color and texture and breaks buds two to three weeks later in the spring than the Douglas, so we get by the frost. It's the Cadillac of Christmas trees."
About 75 percent of his stock is Fraser fir, though he also grows other varieties, knowing that not everyone can afford or even desires a Cadillac. Some of his customers, he notes, want trees like the Scotch pine because their own customers prefer it. And you hang onto your markets by keeping your customers happy.
RAISED IN OAKLAND AND EDU-cated at Michigan State, Doc Custer served Garrett County as one of its few large-animal vets until his retirement in 1972. He then put in 12 years as an inspector for the State Department of Agriculture, retiring in 1984 to devote full time to trees. "I'd say 90 percent of the people in the county know Doc," says Mr. Simms.
A past president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association and a past director on the board of the National Tree Growers Association, Doc Custer put his Mountain Top tree farm up for sale this year. With a smile he says he is confident he will survive without it.
"You used to be able to make money, good money," he says. "That's why a lot of people started doing this. In the '60s the recommendation was to put your money in Christmas trees as a tax shelter. Between the time you planted and harvested, the price of trees always went up. And you always harvested trees that didn't cost that much to plant. What it did was encourage overproduction. A lot of trees started coming to market. As a result, the price of trees hasn't gone up now in four years, but our costs have increased considerably in those four years. The net profit has been squeezed. For a fella who owns his own place free and clear, he can make some money. But it gets difficult if you have a mortgage."
The biggest threat to that lower margin of profit is the growing popularity of artificial trees. "The quality of artificial trees has come up a lot in the last coupleof years," he admits. "Some of those trees they have today are right attractive. But they're right expensive, and you have a storage problem year to year. Then there's people who like the tradition. They are willing to put up with the mess and the headache. Going to get the tree is a big deal for a lot of families. So we promote selling a tradition as much as selling a tree."
That tradition, as you might expect, extends into his own household. Here Doc lets out a snort. "My wife picked out our tree last year," he says with a shake of his head. "She picked out the ugliest tree we had." As he carefully maneuvers the Chevy between rows of trees his snort melts into a little laugh. "But I've got to say, we got it in the house and she decorated it up and it looked nice. Right nice."