For many Americans, the Christmas season brings the return of many family traditions. One of the most popular traditions involves the selecting and decorating of a Christmas tree. Some find their trees at a Lowe’s or a Home Depot, while others opt for a more authentic feel, making a day trip to the mountains to harvest their tree. Once it is purchased and adorned in the home, most admire the tree for the holiday season and discard it after the New Year without giving it a second thought. But for Vale resident Henry Helms, Christmas trees represent a year-round investment of hard work, dedication and passion.
“People don’t know about the hard work that goes into raising the trees,” Helms said. “They only see the price of the tree and its related products. A tree’s a tree for them, but it never has been for me.”
A Lincoln County native, Helms discovered his passion for the trees at the age of 10 while working at a neighbor’s tree farm. “The neighbor sold a few, grew a few, and bought some out of Canada,” Helms said. “Then he started growing them exclusively on the farm.”
He continued to work with his neighbor over the next 20 years. According to Helms, he bought the property where his Helms Christmas Tree Farm now resides in 1976. The land holds significant meaning to Helms, having been in the family for generations.
“The farm was originally part of my grandfather’s farm,” Helms explains. “After my mom inherited her part, I bought the farm from her.”
Since then, he has dedicated his life to raising and harvesting his 6,000 Christmas trees, with the average Christmas tree taking six years to raise.
Helms begins caring for his trees on the first of each year by tending to the aftermath of the holiday sale season. This involves removing all of the stumps as well as leveling and remarking the ground.
“All of our trees are set with a six foot center,” Helms explains. “That way, everything is in a perfect row, making it easy to access [the trees] for spraying and moving.”
Weather permitting, Helms begins the planting process in February. The growing trees are fertilized according to their soil sample and are then fed based off of those recommendations, often blending fertilizer for optimum growth.
“All of our trees are happy, and it shows in their growth,” Helms said. “It’s a non-stop, year-round business for good, thick, pretty trees.”
During the months of April and May, Helms shifts his attention to mowing and controlling the surrounding grass with herbicides.
“I know what insects come out during certain times of the year,” Helms said. “I evaluate the amount of insects before spraying to keep the costs down.”
By June, it is time to start the shearing process. All of his trees are sheared at least once a year, with the exception of the present year’s seedlings. Trees such as the White Pines, Leyland Cypress and Carolina Sapphire are sheared annually, while Red Cedars are sheared twice a year in June and October.
According to Helms, the shearing process promotes growth, making the needles grow in thicker.
From September to November, Helms dedicates his time to gearing up for the holiday sale season. In addition to caring for the trees, he works to maintain the main road leading to the farm and sharpening the saws for customers. Part of the Helms Christmas Tree Farm experience involves the customers cutting their tree down themselves.
The tree farm’s sales season then starts Thanksgiving weekend, running until the 20th of December. Customers travel across Lincoln County as well as from Charlotte, Cornelius, Concord and Kannapolis to purchase his Christmas trees.
“I tend to stay pretty busy,” Helms said. “I’ll wake up at five or six in the morning and work until nine or 10 at night, because there’s always something to do.”
Helms says the long hours are worth it, though.
“A lot of people are making it a tradition to go through the fields…it enhances Christmas to have the families get back together,” Helms said.
Helms attributes some of his success to maintaining strong relationships with his customers. Many of his loyal customers have three generations of family members visiting the farm.
“When you take time with each customer to help them, you build a rapport,” he said. “That goes a long way in having repeat customers.”
In addition to the tree sales, Helms Christmas Farm also offers holiday treats such as hot chocolate and apple cider, along with marshmallow roasts and rides on their miniature train and covered wagon. The much beloved Santa Claus has also been known to pay a visit to the tree farm.
“It gives a lot of people a lot of joy, even though they only come out once a year,” Helms said. “Christmas is about having fun.”