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Knockin’ Around the Christmas Trees: Katrina On Bad List, But Can’t Steal Holiday

Knockin’ Around the Christmas Trees: Katrina On Bad List, But Can’t Steal Holiday
November 30, 2005 |

Back when Katrina was knockin’ around the Christmas trees, things were looking pretty bleak for the holidays down on the farm.For six to eight hours, the hurricane’s fierce winds whipped Steve Mannhard’s 40-acre Christmas tree farm so mercilessly that it appeared the rows of trees were engaged in some sort of macabre dance ritual.”The trees are blowing like crazy,” Mannhard says as if reliving that August night. “They’re doing what we call the ‘hurricane dance’ and the hurricane dance is not pretty. The trees are just going crazy! The people down here understand it… six to eight hours of 70 mph-plus wind and so those trees are just like this (waving arms wildly) for hours on end, just whipping back and forth and the greenery is getting eat up, and the tree is wallowing out a hole in the ground underneath it.”By the time the dance was over, Mannhard’s Summerdale tree farm had been beaten into submission with 20,000 evergreen trees bending low toward the north. To add insult to injury, within days, the south side of the trees turned a dirty light brown — a peculiarity Mannhard suspects is the result of salt rain and wind, but says no one really knows for sure why it happened.All he really knows is that despite Katrina, despite Ivan, despite Dennis — despite all those storms that have tried to steal Christmas — trees from Fish River will be in thousands of Gulf Coast homes again this holiday season.”Santa Claus is just not going to let Katrina get the better of him,” said Mannhard with a smile.Of course, there’ll be fewer pine trees to choose from this time around. Like Ivan, Katrina claimed about 5,000 of Mannhard’s 20,000 trees, with Virginia pines being the greatest casualty. “The pines don’t like the hurricanes,” he said. “Not only do they lay over, but the needles get stripped off.”To make up the difference, he’s importing about 2,000 trees — about 1,200 more than usual — to his farm just 15 miles from Mobile Bay. “That’s a risky deal …,” said Mannhard, “but I don’t have a whole lot of choice because we’re limited.”Among the new arrivals at his farm are Colorado Blue Spruce, Frasier Firs from North Carolina, Noble and Douglas Firs from Oregon, Balsam Firs and two types of spruce trees from Michigan. “That’s a little unusual for a Christmas tree farm down here to do that,” said Mannhard, “but it’s not unusual to have some fir trees as pre-cut trees because that’s what some customers want. That’s what they grew up having.”Walking among his collection of Leyland Cypress, Carolina Sapphire, Blue Cedar, Murray Cypress and Eastern Red Cedar, Mannhard frequently stops and inspects the branches and the trunks for wind damage. “This tree is not sellable, but none of those are really sellable,” he says pointing to a row of leaning brown trees. “They’ll have a halfway decent side — that’s a pretty Christmas tree from here — but back here, it’s not so nice. We call them our Katrina trees. They’re one-sided. They have a good side, and they have a Katrina side. The Katrina side tends to be a little browner than the other side, and it tends to have fewer needles. We kind of laugh about it, but it’s really not very funny.”Seeing his trees battered and bruised is tough for Mannhard, who holds some personal attachment to his leafy pals. “You watch the trees…you know some of them even. You put yourself into them, and you’re really trying with your pruners and shearing knives, you’re trying to make it a really pretty tree. So it’s a little more personal relationship than a farmer growing a field of corn. You just kind of take it a little more personally when your trees get beat up.”Still, he’s getting more used to it than he’d like. Some trees have been blown over by all three hurricanes — Ivan, Dennis and Katrina. And each time, Mannhard has gone back into the field and restaked them in an effort to get them straight again.”The hurricanes — the wind storms — are far and away my number one enemy,” he says. “They lay over the trees. A leaning Christmas tree is a non-seller for obvious reasons. So every time one of these hurricanes comes, you have 10,000 to 20,000 trees leaning over. And the challenge of trying to get those back straight is just horrible.”He’s not giving up, though. “To be honest with you, it’s probably not a good idea to have a Christmas tree farm this close to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “It’s probably a bad idea, much like having a house on the beach is really not a smart idea. It doesn’t stop people from doing it, but eventually you know you are going to get hurt by these hurricanes. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen again.”Even as Mannhard spoke, another hurricane, Wilma, churned its way toward Florida.”Whenever these storms get in the Gulf, you get this gosh-awful feeling because you know somewhere on the Gulf Coast somebody is going to get hurt,” he said. “You get this sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that you know it’s going to hit somebody somewhere, and it could be you.”Yet, his customers keep coming. “Our customers took pity on a lot of these trees last year after Ivan,” said Mannhard. “Last year, the customers were so great. They came back, and they knew the farm was beat up. They knew it, and they came anyway, which made me cry. The thing that helps me get over these storms the most is when the customers come. When you see the children come to the farm and you’ve done all this hard work to get your crop back up and straight the best you can, all that work then pays off when those kids and their parents and their grandparents come onto your farm and they’re smiling and having a good time and they’re choosing one of the trees that you saved. That makes all that hard work worthwhile.”

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