By Taylor Heeden, Chatham News + Record Staff
In homes all across Chatham County this week, live Christmas trees are gazed upon with wonder by old and young alike as lights and ornaments — and the wrapped presents below — add a festive air to the season.
In another week or so, long after the wrapping paper and torn bows are discarded, the trees will meet the same fate as the season fades from memory.
And at Phillips Farm, the work to create future memories has already begun.
While Teri Phillips and her team at Phillips Farm deal with other crops throughout the year — they grow strawberries, pumpkins, hay and more on Hanks Chapel Road — Christmas season is never far away on the almost 15 acres of land they use to cultivate trees that will eventually grace the homes of residences in and around Chatham the next few Decembers.
It was Teri’s husband, Al, who first suggested the idea of growing and selling Christmas trees. He grew up on a farm in Wake County and has spent most of his adult life in the timber industry; today he owns and operates Triangle Forest Products, based in Apex.
Some 20 years ago, however, Al began helping his father sell Fraser firs grown in western North Carolina at a location in Cary. Eventually, Al brought the thought to Terri: why not do the same here in Chatham?
So family began growing and cultivating their own trees their Pittsboro land, bringing in now-33-year-old son Tanner to help out in the operation.
“We’ve been open at this location for the past six or seven years, and every year has picked up with more and more people coming to the area,” Tanner said.
Teri and Tanner get help on the day-to-day work from Austin Mathews, who has worked at Phillips Farm since the Christmas tree venture began. It’s Mathews who’s tasked with the planting and cultivating of saplings, working year-round to keep the growing trees trimmed and pruned. And as Thanksgiving approaches and customers begin thinking about putting up a live tree for the holiday season, he helps them choose — and cut — what will eventually be placed at a special spot inside the home and festooned with lights and ornaments and topped with a star of some kind.
The process takes time — many years, in fact.
“Some varieties that grow faster, you [re]plant them when they are younger,” Mathews said. “It really depends on what tree you get — some you [re]plant when they are 1 year old, and some, like the white pines — are 3 years old.”
Long after most of us have discarded our live trees, and our thoughts perhaps turn toward spring and things like summer trips to the beach, it’s Mathews and the Phillipses who are thinking about future Christmases. After planting saplings and ensuring real growth begins, Mathews cuts off parts of disfigured or dying branches and fights off deer and other pests who might want to make a meal of the fledgling trees.
“Trees need to be fertilized, trimmed and taken care of all year,” Mathews said. “If it is tilted, you have to make it straight again; you have to make sure there is a solid growing structure, and you have to do that for every tree, every year.”
‘They’re so happy because it’s Christmas’
Aside from the popular Fraser firs — with their dark, glossy-green foliage of dark needles supported by strong branches — grown in Alleghany County and brought to Chatham, Phillips Farm grows Eastern White Pine and Leland Cypress trees. The white pines feature soft, bluish-green needles; the cypress trees are also used as ornamental plantings.
Customers have the choice of picking one of the pre-cut Fraser trees from the main lot, or they can venture to the vast fields to pick one for the farming staff to cut down. From there, Tanner and Mathews will work on cutting the trees down, shaking the loose pine needles from the trees, wrapping them in netting and then loading them onto customers’ cars.
Teri said the busiest time for them this Christmas season was the first few days they opened the lot for business the weekend after Thanksgiving. About 300 people came to pick out their tree during that weekend alone.
“It was really crazy that first weekend, and it has just gotten a little slower as you go through the season,” she said.
By Christmas Eve, Phillips Farm usually sells close to 800 Christmas trees. To accommodate the increase in foot traffic on that opening weekend, the Phillipses employ students from around the county to help with the extra workload.
“There’s a lot of handwork that has to get done that we can’t handle,” Mathews said. “So we have high school and college kids help out during that time.”
Among the thousands of tree Phillips Farm has sold over the years are the 15-foot-tall Christmas trees displayed in front of the historic Chatham County Courthouse for the last two years, placed by the town of Pittsboro.
Labor shortages related to the ongoing pandemic and a warmer climate in recent years in the higher elevations in N.C. — which has led to shortages of some types of trees — have contributed to higher Christmas tree pricing.
“The eastern varieties we sell for $7 a foot, but the Fraser trees saw a jump of $12 to $15 a foot,” Teri said. “Last year, they were about $8 to $12 a foot.”
Despite that, Phillips Farm has seen hundreds of families come through their farm this year alone. Next year, the family is planning to open a second location to sell trees from off of U.S. Hwy. 64 on the western side of Pittsboro. The current location has around five to six acres of trees planted, and the new location will allow for up to 10 additional acres of Christmas trees.
“We’ve got a farm right past Hadley Mill Road, where we have sold strawberries and pumpkins before,” Teri said. “We’ve been growing some trees out there for about three years, so we should have some 5-foot tall trees out there. We’re trying to move our base for retail out there.”
Phillips Farm operates as a family-owned business, with Teri and Tanner managing most of the administrative duties. And while the Christmas season is stressful at times, Teri said she was thankful to be able to work with Tanner and see more of his wife, Brittany and her 13-month-old grandson, Rhett.
“I get to see my son and his baby more, and that’s always fun,” Teri said. “Sometimes it’s stressful and everybody has shorter tempers, but it’s good.”
“Everybody has their other jobs too, so this on top of what people normally do is stressful,” Tanner added.
Despite the hectic nature the Christmas season brings, Mathews said the best part of the season is the cheerful attitude people have while picking out their Christmas tree.
“Everyone’s always in such a good mood,” he said. “It’s the holiday season and people are happy.”
For Teri, one of the best things about being a part of the Christmas tree farm is seeing many of the same families come back every year — and the connections that come with people who make it part of a family tradition to pick out a live tree.
“I love talking to the people who come here because they’re so happy because it’s Christmas,” Teri said. “I get to see people come every year with their kids and see them grow up. That’s probably the best part.”
Phillips Farm is located at 1282 Hanks Chapel Road.
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