O, Christmas Tree
Grace and Joe Pepper, along with their children, have maintained their Christmas tree farm for over 25 years in West Monroe. Thanks to their year-long hardwork and maintenance, the Peppers have become part of our Christmases by being kind enough to provide us a cherished piece of our holiday traditions.
photography by Martin G Meyers
article by Nils Borquist
Whether tucked in the living room corner or displayed as a den showpiece, the Christmas tree glows as a beacon of the hope, joy and excitement of that most loved holiday season. With limbs encumbered by strands of flickering lights, glittery angels and that oven-baked reindeer decoration that never quite looked like a reindeer, the tree invites family and friends to mingle, to share laughter and hugs in its warmth. We can see them in the windows of homes lining the streets, emanating soft reds and greens, glistening stars perched atop the peaks. And we smile. We can’t help but do that, because we are all children at Christmas, full of wishes, dreams and the desire to know what hides beneath that wrapping paper with a hundred Santas roaming about. We appreciate the gift of the tree, the spirit that it embodies, and if we looked further, we could understand the dedication required and embraced by a special few people, often entire families, who work year round to deliver that cherished Christmas symbol upon which children of every age gaze with soft eyes and loving hearts.
On the outskirts of West Monroe, there is a place that even in the heat of summer remains a winter wonderland, dotted with trees destined to be festooned with tinsel. For over 25 years, Pepper Christmas Tree Farm has provided trees that reside in homes across the region and beyond. Arriving at the farm, homes pleasant yet rather unassuming straddle a single lane paved entrance. However, once turning down the driveway past the aged sign proclaiming Pepper Christmas Tree Farm and easing over a slight rise, rows of Leyland Cypresses spring into view sprouting from the furrows stretched across sloping hillsides. Waves of trees, ranging in heights of over 20 feet to fragile knee-high saplings and colors from deep olive to soft bluish tints, emerge, spanning the countryside and ebbing into an abyss of towering loblollies behind the actual farm. With this view, one cannot help but hear Nat King Cole’s voice echoing throughout the valley.
The driveway continues forth to a home nestled between a nursery replete with Christmas tree toddlers on one side and a vast expanse of trees climbing the hillside on the other. However, visitors stop at the looming red barn where, if lucky, Mr. Joe Pepper will greet them with an ever-present smile and inviting handshake. Nearly three decades ago, Pepper, nearing retirement from Graphic Packaging, pondered what to do with his time besides play golf and enjoy his family. Having an idea about starting a Christmas tree farm, he consulted with an acquaintance who also happened to be a forestry specialist. The friend’s advice: if Mr. Pepper wouldn’t miss hunting, fishing and many other pastimes, as farming would be a great deal of work and an even bigger investment of time, he should do it. That sounded like a good deal for a man who by his own admission is unwilling to sit at the house watching Oprah all day. Excited by the endeavor, Joe soon dug his hands into the earth and planted his first saplings, planting a seed that would lead to joy for thousands of families to come.
In tackling the Christmas tree profession, the Peppers joined a legacy of traditional small farm growers, a group that dwindles with the passing years. Upon initially gaining membership in an association of Southern Christmas Tree farmers, Pepper noted that there were over 600 members from several nearby states such as Arkansas and Mississippi as well as Louisiana. Today, only a few years later, a blink as far as Father Time is concerned, the same assembly boasts barely 60 members. Whether due to the difficulties of perpetuating tree growth and sales, encountering the increasing desire for imitation trees or competing with colossal companies, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot for customers, many small farmers have been phased out or have stepped away. Fortunately for North Louisianians, the Pepper family continued forward, dedicating themselves to producing trees, and perhaps even more importantly the entire Christmas tree experience, that elicit memories to stay with families for generations. From driving to the farm singing carols to walking the slopes perusing and caressing potential purchases, hearing children giggle as they point at each tree they pass, exclaiming, “That one!” and ending with a selection to be delicately wrapped and placed atop the car, each year’s experience is stored away in that vault of fond memories to be replayed with every coming December.
Mr. Pepper smiles at such images. A five or six week stretch of blissful chaos at the end of every year is the culmination of 10 months of hard work unseen by shoppers. Joined primarily by his son Glen, Joe participates in the propagation of each tree on the farm, a grueling enterprise considering the hundreds scattered on the expanse. He explained that the process begins with taking a small cutting from a larger tree and rooting it—at this stage, the sapling stands around a foot high. He cultivates it in his nursery until he discerns that it has indeed rooted and is properly growing at which time he will plant it among similarly aged sprouts in uniform sections. As the tree grows, it must be carefully pruned, limbs culled to create and enhance the familiar conical Christmas tree shape. Additionally, as certain trees are prone to fungus, the Peppers must be watchful and spray the trees with the necessary remedy to squelch potentially harmful elements. Deer can pose a problem as well, from nibbling at the trees all year to shearing limbs while rubbing and scraping antlers during the fall, so the Peppers must also be vigilant concerning the locations where such damage is most commonly occurring. A lack of water may be the biggest issue for the farm; a dearth of rain for extended periods of time can result in the demise of many trees as the different varieties consume huge amounts of water. Unfortunately, last summer’s rain shortage, lasting several months, resulted in the loss of a great deal of trees. Fortunately, though, the Peppers outlasted the drought, and the crop of trees this year is particularly strong, possibly due to the most resilient trees surviving and thriving, enduring so that they may become beloved holiday family members.
After a family determines which tree will be the perfect fit for its home, selecting, cutting then wrapping the tree take place, yet these are not the only services provided by the Peppers. They will also happily fit the tree for a sturdy stand, as well as flock the tree, if desired. Joe has specially created stands for the trees that are constructed of metal and do not require the tedious action of screwing large rods into the base of the tree; instead, the Peppers can bore a hole down the center of the trunk that a prong from the stand easily sits within, which creates an even sturdier foundation for the tree. Regarding the flocking, the Peppers have fabricated a turntable that slowly rotates a tree so that they may dust it with simulated snow, providing a shimmering touch of holiday magic. As Joe explains the processes, one cannot help but realize that the practices preferred by the Peppers seem to have the best interest of the trees in mind. The careful consideration for the life of the tree, even beyond it being cut, is important for Pepper. This is understandable. For a man who spends so much time caring for the trees, watering them when thirsty, trimming them so they remain aesthetically pleasing even when no one sees them during the early months of summer and protecting them from the dangers of wildlife, seeing that they remain appreciated when leaving his care reminds visitors that the trees are thriving creatures, alive and sharing the earth with us, and that Mr. Pepper, selflessly guides them into adulthood and eventually the arms of families with the patience and hard work required by every parent.
The Christmas Tree has evolved to become the most iconic emblem of the holiday season, which can make it easy for people to take them for granted. We see them everywhere for sale, and we see them everywhere on display. When visiting lots, the trees are lined up and stacked, and we essentially stand still and scan until we see the one we want. The process can be likened to shopping online; scroll, choose, point and click. Done. While simple, this belittles the work involved, especially for those families like the Peppers who start trees from a stripling and maintain them into towering behemoths. The element of nurturing something gets lost, which is bothersome for Joe Pepper. At one point in time, recently in fact, people could make a good living running a tree farm, even if it was a small farm, but with expediency being overly desired, people have turned away from these farms and the families who own them. The Pepper family, though, is special. They continue to work to develop trees, to be integral pieces of the cycle of nature, planting, growing, harvesting and replenishing. Because they love interacting with nature and with the families who come and partake in the fruits of their labor, they succeed and pass on a tradition that is preserved by mothers and fathers who were taken to the farm as children by their mothers and fathers to experience an extraordinary and timeless experience.
Joe Pepper summed up the work in one word: fun. Although it is demanding and becomes more and more tiresome as his own years advance, he said that the enjoyment, the fun, remains. Being able to do hard work alongside his son, his wife, and so many other members of his family makes the arduous tasks entirely worthwhile. When combining this with the sheer exhilaration in the faces of children and even adults who visit, the recipe for a satisfying job is complete. Family is what the tree is about. From the early stages of growth until the tree assumes its place near a welcoming door or stands peeking from an open window, it is groomed to become a family member, or at the very least a link used to strengthen the bonds of family. The family members put the tree up, and they stand together and decorate it, laughing about the snowman decoration missing its carrot nose or the yellowed paper gingerbread man suspended on twenty different trees for twenty straight years. They drink hot chocolate and eggnog in the tree’s presence, and they recite Christmas poems and open gifts underneath its outstretched arms. They need the tree, and they love the tree. Fortunately for those of us who happen to live close enough to get one, the Peppers have become part of our Christmases by being kind enough to provide us with a cherished member of their family, so that we may enjoy our own to the fullest.