The tingly taste of peppermint. The sharp scent of fresh pine. The joyous squeals of festively outfitted children playing outdoors. The relief as the last homemade ornament finds its home on the tree.
These are the memories and traditions Steve and Sandra Mannhard cultivate each winter as thousands of families descend on Fish River Trees, their Baldwin County Christmas tree farm.
“The farm is all about children and families,” said Steve, a St. Louis native and English-teacher-turned-Christmas-tree-farmer. “You watch them run up and down rows of trees, and something magical happens.”
Situated on former swampland near the Fish River, the 40-acre Summerdale farm began in 1981 when Steve planted 7,000 Virginia pine seedlings in soybean stubble. Auburn University was promoting Christmas tree farming as an alternative land use, and Steve took a leap of faith into agriculture.
“Somewhere in my heart, there was always a love for farming,” said the 68 year old.
Today, the Mannhards sell almost 5,000 trees a year, mostly choose-and-cut trees like Leyland cypress. They also offer a dual-purpose product — container-grown trees that can be planted after presents are opened and ornaments are packed away.
Living Christmas trees, as the Mannhards call them, can be purchased for landscaping year round from the farm's evergreen nursery.
The farm's trees range from table toppers to the 15-foot wonder that welcomed visitors to Alfa Insurance and Alabama Farmers Federation's Montgomery home office last year.
The Mannhards also sell wreaths, offer train and pony rides, host Santa Claus and feature a manger scene. Their farm has a new venture opening soon – Fish River Cabins, available for rent in 2017.
“The very first day I came here, I fell in love with the place,” said Sandra, 58, who met Steve in the U.S. Army Reserve.
It begins to look a lot like Christmas at Fish River Trees the weeks before Thanksgiving when the Mannhards “flip the farm,” as Sandra says, into a store. They open for holiday business the day after Thanksgiving, and 70 percent of their product is sold by Dec. 1.
“Our customers want that quality family time they remember from their childhood,” said Sandra.
The Federation's Mac Higginbotham said local Christmas tree farms are a form of agritourism, where families look to farms for entertainment and fun.
“Alabama is home to about a dozen Christmas tree farms, and they enjoy creating holiday memories for families,” said Higginbotham, the Federation's Greenhouse, Nursery & Sod Division director. “Plus, Christmas trees grown in Alabama are fresher and last longer than those shipped from states like Michigan and North Carolina.”
All but the pre-cut Fraser fir trees are grown on-site, making Fish River Trees’ prices comparable to wholesale rates, Steve said.
Choose-and-cut trees include Virginia pine; Leyland, Carolina sapphire, blue ice and Murray cypress; and green giant arborvitae. Prices vary depending on tree size and variety.
Families may choose, cut and carry home trees until Dec. 23, when the Mannhards close shop and deck the halls with their family.
“The holiday isn’t something you want to get away from,” Steve said. “Families are in the Christmas spirit when they come here, and it’s contagious.”
For more information, find Fish River Trees on Facebook or visit FishRiverTrees.com.