Singing carols, exchanging presents and sharing delicious meals are holiday traditions for most families, but for the Gilberts of Lanett, Alabama, creating memories for others is just as meaningful.
“This is part of our Christmas,” said Joan Gilbert, as she and her family walked among 3,500 Virginia Pines and Leyland Cypress trees at Gilbert Christmas Tree Farm. “I look forward to seeing our customers, meeting people and seeing everyone get excited about picking out their tree.”
For five weekends each year, at least seven members of the Gilbert family can be found loading trees, making wreaths, giving wagon rides, serving hot cider and greeting guests at their 220-acre farm in Chambers County. Ray Gilbert, 63, said it’s been that way for 26 years.
“When we originally started, our parents helped on the farm,” Ray recalled. “Daddy had an old blue Ford van, and we worked out of the van. We had a little generator for the (tree) shaker, and we hauled water from the house.”
Today, the farm is a full-service holiday destination with children’s activities, refreshments and Tree Toppers gift shop, which Joan started in 2007.
“Everybody is into agri-entertainment,” Ray said. “They want something to ride and for the kids to play on. About five years ago, people started calling asking what we have besides trees, so we’ve added a playground, hay bales to play on, the gift shop, concessions and the wagon ride.”
Another change is the number of people who want to cut their own tree.
“When we started, I cut almost all the trees. It was rare for a customer to want to cut their own tree,” Ray said. “Now, it’s part of the attraction.”
The Gilberts sell about 600 trees a year. About 80 percent are Leyland Cypress, which Ray calls the Southern Christmas tree, and 20 percent are pines. Since 2007, they’ve also offered Fraser Fir trees from Scaly Mountain, North Carolina. This year, the Gilberts purchased 200 firs, which they keep watered until sold. They also added equipment to sell rooted Christmas trees.
Whether customers recycle or plant their tree after Christmas, Ray said it’s still better for the environment than an artificial tree.
“Real trees are a renewable resource,” he said. “They are putting oxygen into the air, and after Christmas, they can be used as fish beds or mulch. An artificial tree from China will stay in a landfill for hundreds of years.”
For the Gilberts’ customers, however, the best thing about choosing a real Christmas tree is the experience.
“A lot of people make it a family event,” said Ray and Joan’s daughter, Jennifer Kirby. “We have customers who come back every year. There are some I remember seeing when I was a kid who are now coming back with their grandkids.”
One family drives from Chattanooga, Tennessee, every year, and another local family picks up their tree with a horse and wagon. Since 1988, Ray said he’s loaded trees in everything from a convertible to an ambulance.
These days, Ray has a lot of help loading trees and greeting guests. In addition to Jennifer and Joan, the Gilbert Trees team includes son Trey; his wife, Amy; and Jennifer’s husband, Matt. The newest helper is Trey and Amy’s seven-year-old son, Ty.
Like most children who visit the farm, Ty’s favorite part is “running back and forth in the fields.”
“The kids just love it,” Joan said. “Some families stay out here for hours.”
The Gilberts also host about three school groups each year, free of charge.
Trey, who began working in the trees at Ty’s age, said he’s glad his son is getting to experience life on the farm.
When Ray planted his first 500 Virginia Pines in 1983, he joined about 20 other farmers in the East Alabama Christmas Tree Association. He said he was looking for a simple way to make the land more profitable but never envisioned how the trees would bless his family and countless others.
Today, the Gilberts’ farm is the only one from the original group still in business, but Ray continues to promote the industry. He was president of the Southern Christmas Tree Association in 2008, and is on track to serve again in 2017. The Gilberts’ trees also have won awards at the regional and national levels, and one of their 30-foot trees will be on display this year at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery.
Meanwhile, the Gilberts will be at the farm this month — trimming trees and making memories. Because, as Ray says, “It’s just not Christmas without a real tree