Story By Will Crews
Photos By Robert Noles And Contributed by Gilbert’s Christmas Tree Farm
Ray Gilbert bought his first Christmas trees in 1983. They were Virginia Pines. Five years later — after giving the trees time to grow — he made his first sale. Now, Gilbert and his family are opening Gilbert Christmas Tree Farm to the public for the thirty-second year in a row.
Originally, Gilbert’s farm was an 84-acre plot of land with access from country road 266 in Lanett, Alabama. He and his family planted Virginia Pines and joined the East Alabama Christmas Tree Association in 1983.
“We had about 22 members; we were meeting, learning how to grow them and working together and all,” Gilbert said. “Out of the 22 farms we are the only one still in business.”
Fast forward and Gilbert added an extra 142 acres of land in 2002 — bringing the farm three miles closer to the Valley area. It also brought the Gilbert family closer as they built their home on the new acreage. They have been there, selling Christmas trees, ever since.
This year, Gilbert Christmas Tree Farm opened on Nov. 21 and will close on Dec. 20. They are open Thursday and Friday from 1 to 6 p.m. E.S.T., Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. E.S.T., Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. E.S.T. and all day on Black Friday.
When you arrive at the farm, Gilbert’s wife Joan, daughter Jennifer, daughter-in-law Amy, son Trey and son-in-law Matt will all be there to greet you. Joan, Jennifer and Amy work in the farm’s gift shop that was built in 2012. The store emanates the family atmosphere that surrounds the farm and offers a wide variety of gift items, beautiful wreaths, ornaments and bows.
“It’s stuff that you wouldn’t find in Walmart,” Gilbert said. “We have customers now who really come out there just to buy decorations. We’re really the only place close by that has stuff like that.”
The boys do most of the “dirty” work in the field and assist with the trees. Gilbert’s grandson, Ty, is currently learning the business as well.
Gilbert Christmas Tree Farm sells four types of trees: their original Virginia Pines, Leyland Cypresses that were added in the late 90’s, Fraser Firs, which were added in 2007, and Carolina Sapphires.
The trees vary in price and size:
- Leyland Cypress: $7-10 per foot; from 3-19 feet.
- Carolina Sapphire: $10 per foot; from 5-9 feet.
- Virginia Pine: $35-40 depending on the field; $6 per foot; from 3-12 feet.
- Fraser Fir: $60-150; from 6-11 feet.
The Leyland Cypress are the most popular, representing about 80% of Gilbert’s total tree sales.
“For the Deep South Christmas tree farms … that’s the best tree we can grow,” Gilbert said.
However, it’s the Fraser Firs that hold a unique distinction from all the other trees. The firs are the only trees not grown on site at the farm. Each year, Gilbert’s brings in a new batch of Fraser Firs that are grown in North Carolina.
“They [Fraser Firs] have to grow at an elevation above 2,000 feet so that knocks Alabama and Georgia out,” he said.
Unlike other big box stores, Gilbert’s keep the trees stored in water until the customer purchases them, thus ensuring the customer receives the freshest cut tree possible.
“We figured we had to do something to be better than the box stores,” Gilbert said. “What we’re trying to do is keep the Fraser Firs from drying out. Basically once we get them off the truck and cut the bottom of the tree, they are never without water until they go home with the customer.”
One of the cooler aspects of Gilbert Christmas Tree Farm is that customers can pick out and cut their own tree.
“That’s what’s taken off in the last five years or so,” Gilbert said. “People want to go out, bring the family out, go and find the tree and cut it themselves.”
The tree cutting is just another part of what make this family-centered business unique. Another fun feature of the farm centers around guests who arrive with young children. They can find entertainment for the children in the play area or with a complimentary Gilbert’s hayride.
Gilbert and his family work year-round to make sure the farm is ready for customers during the holiday season.
“The deal with why a lot of people get out of the Christmas tree business or don’t stay with it is it’s a tremendous amount of work,” Gilbert said. “There’s something to do every month. People think you plant these trees, go back in a few years and you sell the tree and that’s it. That’s what we were told when we got in the business, we didn’t know how much work it was either.”
Gilbert trims his trees multiple times a year to make sure families have the best possible selection of beautiful Christmas trees.
“These trees don’t grow like Christmas trees naturally,” he added. “This year with all the rain, and I’ve started a different fertilizer program, I ended up trimming some of my trees four times — I’ve never done that before.”
It’s not easy work, but it’s worth it. Gilbert said the most rewarding part is watching all the kids and families come out and have a good time.
“Everybody wants to come out and work during Christmas tree season because it’s such a joyous and happy time,” he said. “…It’s just fun.”