Walter and Delores Lee have been selling trees at Greenbriar Creek Tree Farm for over two decades. As they work through their 22nd season, the Lees shift their focus toward educating the community and donating to military bases across America and overseas.
“We’re not just selling a tree, we’re selling a memory, an experience — it’s something that means something to families years later,” says Walter.Why It’s Newsworthy: Walter and Delores Lee from Greenbriar Creek Tree Farm donate about 100 trees to military troops each year, spreading holiday cheer and promoting the benefits of natural over plastic trees.
Walter and Delores Lee first sold Christmas trees back in 2003, three years after their first planting season in 2000. Greenbriar Creek Tree Farm operates off of Old Bishop Road in Bishop, Georgia, where Walter’s father originally owned the 40-acre farm land. After working for 36 years in wholesale agricultural supplies and at the local preschool, Walter and Delores wanted to start a new project.
Walter’s brother owned a Christmas tree farm in Athens, Georgia up until 2003, and Walter decided to follow his lead. Throughout the first few years of growing and harvesting trees, Walter and Delores leaned on family and community to figure out next steps for growth.
“We got a lot of advice from my brother and we also joined the Georgia Christmas Tree Association,” says Walter, “the Georgia growers don’t compete, we all encourage live trees so we’re all willing to share information and learn a lot from each other.”
Managing the Farm
Initially, Walter and Delores sold only Leyland Cypress trees. The only problem with the Leylands, Delores says, is their susceptibility to a disease known as pine blight.
According to research by Dr. Alfredo Martinez and Dr. Jean Williams-Woodward, two University of Georgia Extension plant pathologists, this pine blight develops through fungal infections of tree stumps. The fungus grows rapidly through a tree’s stump and root system, also infecting any nearby Leyland Cypress trees through root contact.
Walter and Delores have systems in place to prevent this disease from spreading, like regularly spraying and checking trees for any signs of decay. After a few years learning from other Georgia growers, the couple mixed in new tree varieties such as the Murray Cypress, which are more disease-resistant, as well as the Carolina Sapphire, the Blue Ice and the Green Giant.
“Some people don’t want anything but a Frasier Fir, so we bring in some fresh-cut Frasier Firs out of North Carolina because we can’t grow them here,” says Delores.
Pine blight is not the only problem Walter and Delores run into while maintaining their farm. The couple has to watch out for any damage left by deer and insects. Delores says they enjoy the deer and wildlife, but it’s frustrating when they damage a tree that’s been growing sturdy for several years.
Despite what some may believe about owning a Christmas tree farm, Walter and Delores have little time off during the year. They have to plant their trees by February, and when spring weather arrives the trees must be fertilized. The Lees also have to mow weekly in between the trees and trim twice a year — once in May and again in September. They spray for disease and insects every three days throughout the summer into early fall, and finally the couple prepares for selling season in October.
“We get busy in the fall getting equipment and signs ready, and by mid-November things really pick up,” says Walter.
In comparison to when they started selling, Walter and Delores have noticed people buying Christmas trees a lot earlier in the holiday season these days. Before, the two hardly sold any trees in November, but now they sell around 50 in the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Although the farm usually closes around five days before Christmas, Walter and Delores realize some families wait to buy their trees up until Christmas Eve. To cater to those who like to wait, the couple leaves any remaining Frasier Firs out in the front lot for customers to cut their own tree and leave money in the mailbox.
Serving the Community and Troops
Walter and Delores’ say their main priority is supporting the community and bringing joy to families each holiday season. In addition to choosing the perfect tree to take home, families can visit Santa and go for hay rides around the farm. Over the years, the Lees have made deep, personal connections with many families that visit the farm.
“We’ve had a lot of the same customers over the years,” says Delores, “and that’s the fun part of it, watching families and children grow year after year.”
Since 2005, the farm has also donated around 100 trees to Trees for Troops each season. Trees for Troops is a nation-wide program sponsored by FedEx and the National Christmas Tree Association. Together the two organizations ask tree farmers to donate to troops and military families across the United States and overseas. Since the project’s start, around 300,000 farm-grown trees have been donated, according to the Christmas Spirit Foundation.
Out of the 37 states that participate, New York and Georgia are the two states that provide the most trees, and Walter and Delores are proud to donate and encourage their customers to sponsor trees for the Trees for Troops’ mission.
“We find out where our trees go each year,” says Walter, “this year they shipped to Florida, a navy base in Mayport and a base in Cape Canaveral.”
While they used to put more effort into providing fun activities for families, Walter and Delores want to move forward with educating their community about the importance of buying local and freshly-grown Christmas trees.
“We want to emphasize that buying live trees is better for the environment — they’re biodegradable, you’re not buying plastic,” said Walter.
Mr. and Mrs. Lee at Greenbriar Creek Tree Farm look forward to continuing holiday traditions for families and giving back with service, care and education.
Morgan Quinn is a fourth-year studying journalism.
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