By Jim Hannaford and photos by Stephen Anderson and Kate Reali
It’s relaxing out on the farm for most of the year. Like he’s done for the last 39 years, Steve Mannhard works the land pretty much by himself, though he calls in a few extra hands when he needs them. It’s hard work, but there’s a calm, steady pace to it that he and his wife, Sandra, have gotten used to over the years.
But come late November, a wave of excitement and energy hits Fish River Tree Farm like a sudden storm. This holiday rush comes and goes quickly—after just three or four weeks of frenzy it’s silent again, and then the cycle repeats itself.
“For 11 months it’s an agricultural operation, and the day after Thanksgiving is when it flips and becomes an outdoor retail store,” says Steve. “Suddenly you’re worrying about whether the telephone lines and credit card machines are working and having to hire up to 30 employees for the short term.”
This is where Sandra comes in. It’s their teamwork that helps to make others’ spirits bright. While he handles most of the field work, her specialties lie in the day-to-day management and customer-service end of their family business. Their excitement builds for most of the year toward the day when they swing open their gates for a procession of cars, trucks and SUVS.
“It’s like Black Friday” is how Sandra describes this annual race for the trees. “It’s real busy except for a little break on Saturdays because of the football games, but otherwise it’s pretty steady until we close on the 23rd – we don’t work on Christmas Eve.”
Maybe Green Friday would be an even better description. Spectacular scenery and an inviting aroma welcome you to their verdant 40 acres in the Marlow area near the Fish River east of Fairhope, where they stay busy raising thousands of pines and cypresses of various species from seedling to showpiece. On a “choose and cut” operation like theirs, customers carefully canvass the grounds for the perfect tree and saw it down themselves. This experience reminds Sandra of her own upbringing in Dothan, where her father would always harvest a tree himself from a patch of woods near their home.
Plenty of people prefer the quick-and-easy option of grabbing a pre-cut tree from a big box chain store. But many families in Baldwin County and neighboring areas crave this connection with nature as part of their annual rites. The Mannhards have lots of repeat customers, some spanning two or three generations from within the same family.
“For the kids, there’s something about coming to the farm and seeing the evergreens all in a row because it’s an unusual sight for them,” says Steve. “It’s a beautiful thing to see a mother with her baby in a stroller or a man with a bow saw in one hand and his daughter’s hand in the other.”
To make the experience even more enjoyable and memorable, the tree farm has visits from Santa or rides on a pony or an old-timey train. These extras are great for business, of course, but they also warm the heart in other ways. “I think it’s important for families to try and do those kinds of things together,” says Steve, “especially in this day and age when they spend so much time indoors sitting in front of a screen.”
Hurricane Sally did a number on the place in September. While they lost only a small portion of the crop, it was heartbreaking seeing those stacks of mature Virginia pines waiting to be hauled away with other storm rubbish. Thousands more trees were blown over flat and had to be lifted individually and propped back up with strips of lumber. Six weeks later, Hurricane Zeta pushed a third of them off-kilter and they had to be straightened again.
“The wind is without question our number-one enemy out here, and it always has been,” he says.
Hurricanes come with the territory, of course, and Mannhard has had to weather a steady string of them since he started the farm with early partner T. Z. Mitchell in 1981, just a couple of years after Frederic had blasted the area. He recalls his foes by name, as if he’s calling out Santa’s reindeer: “Well, the worst one for us was Ivan in 2004, and then in 2005 there were Dennis and Katrina. And we had Erin and Opal (in 1995), and before that there were Elena and Danny, which dumped a bunch of rain on us.”
At the time, such farms were pretty common in the area, partly because of an experimental program started by Auburn University to promote the planting of Virginia pines as Christmas trees. While Fish River Tree Farm is the last such farm in our area, there are a few others around the state.
“Farms like this really shouldn’t be this close to the Gulf Coast,” he admits. “But what are you going to do? Are you going to say we’re not going to have any Christmas trees in this part of the country?”
A LIFETIME LEGACY
A native of St. Louis, Steve came to the area for Spring Hill College and its ROTC program and decided to stay. He taught English at Foley High School for 11 years while serving in the Army Reserves. At first, he expected Christmas trees to be a side venture, but they quickly grew into a full-time commitment.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize I really like growing these trees,” he reflects. “You’re creating something you can be really proud of, and there’s something about owning your own business. It’s a feeling of ‘This is me.’ It’s a sense of pride.” He pauses, and then says, “I always wanted a farm, I think.”
When he arrived on the scene, the parcel of land along Woodhaven Dairy Road off County Road 9 was part of a mixed-use farm that grew soybeans, corn, and Bermuda grass. He planted 7,000 trees initially, and today the number is around 20,000. Besides the trees they grow themselves, they also bring in fir trees because many people prefer them.
It takes a few years for the trees to reach their desired height. They have to be watered and fertilized and meticulously clipped and trimmed over time to encourage their graceful conical shape. “A lot of people have no earthly idea how much work it takes,” he says. His top tool is a Swiss-made pair of hand pruners which he usually keeps in his pocket. “It’s part of me, almost,” he says, and admits to instinctively reaching for it when he sees an unruly tree or shrub, such as when he’s visiting someone else’s house.
Work on the tree farm is physical, and the hours are long. As he gets older, he does worry about the long-term future of the farm. But in the meantime, he’s grateful that his business is so popular and finds it rewarding to be part of a few thousand families’ Christmas experience year after year.
He and Sandra have their own comfortable house on the farm, too, and their home-spun enterprise has grown to include a handful of cabins they rent out as vacation getaways. At the end of a working day, they like to unwind on their porch, hopefully catching a nice sunset on the horizon off toward Mobile Bay.
And once the season’s over, and so many families have had a memorable Christmas thanks in part to them, they make some time for themselves. They have a little bit of a break and usually a nice vacation before they repeat their routine.
“My favorite time of year is Christmas, but I love it out here year-round,” says Sandra. “It’s just so peaceful.”
Trees for Troops
A Christmas tree certainly warms up the home during the holidays, and they can do the same for military families.
Trees for Troops is a charity effort sponsored by the National Christmas Tree Association to give farm-grown trees to active duty personnel and their families. You can help support the cause each holiday season at Fish River Tree Farm.
“It provides Christmas trees for military personnel and their families on bases here in the United States as well as overseas,” says tree farm owner Steve Mannhard. “It brings ‘home’ to them.”
The trees are donated by farms around the country and are delivered at no cost by FedEx, and the donations and proceeds from fundraising activities such as raffles help to cover administrative expenses.
“It’s for all branches of the armed forces,” he adds. “We’ve even put them on ships.”
The charitable arm of the association is officially known as the Christmas SPIRIT Foundation. Going into this season it had provided nearly 244,000 trees since 2005 to more than 70 different bases. Visit treesfortroops.org