September Leach was up early Wednesday morning in search of a Christmas tree. Her adventure brought her to the Kinsey Family Farm in Forsyth County, where she had been before.
"You get to be on a farm for a little bit, which is really cool," Leach said. "The drive up here is really great and it gets you in the Christmas spirit."
Leach is not alone. A growing trend in shopping for the annual yuletide tree involves making it an on-farm experience.
Georgia’s Christmas tree farms are joining pumpkin farms, corn mazes, farm wineries and pick your own vegetable farms that are a part of the business of agri-tourism.
Ag-based tourism was a $27.1 million industry in 2006, according to the University of Georgia’s Georgia Farm Gate Value Report.
"When I was a child, I was lucky enough to be born on a farm," said Scott Cagle, founder of Agri-Tour Solutions, a consulting firm for agri-tourism. "Most people today were never near a farm. An agri-tourism farm gives them access."
For the Kinsey family, getting into the Christmas tree business was a way to hang on to the family’s farm on Jot-Em-Down Road in North Forsyth.
"About six years ago, we were trying to figure out what to do with the farm," said Andy Kinsey, who along with his parents and brother, Kelly, operates the tree business.
The farm was home to a poultry and livestock operation and the family wanted to do something different.
"We thought it would be fun to do something that would be family oriented, not just for us, but other families as well," he said.
Three years ago, the family sold their first trees grown on the farm. The trees are various versions of Leland cypress, which mature to Christmas tree size in about four years.
This year’s drought has not had an effect on the current year’s crop, however, trees planted earlier this year for the crop of 2011, have had a higher mortality rate, according to Kinsey.
"We won’t see a significant loss in trees until three or four years from now," he said.
There are two family owned tree farms in Forsyth, the other is owned by Dennis and Sandra Bottoms.
Their trees have fared well.
"Surprisingly, they’ve done really well," he said. "They may not have grown as much, but that’s not been a problem either, it just means they need less pruning."
While the trees survived the drought, Bottoms is worried they might not survive budget crunches.
"I’m more worried about the economy than the drought. There’s a lot of people who are having a tough time right now and a Christmas tree is not a necessity," Bottoms said. "But I’m hoping we still have a good season."
Bottoms said the farm sold about 800 trees last year and has 1,000 full-size trees ready for this year.
The Kinsey farm also sells Fraser fir trees grown by a family tree farm in North Carolina. The trees are kept in reservoirs of water prior to sale.
Kinsey said many of the problems with Christmas trees from some retailers and tree lots stem from trees that have been cut well in advance of the season and from trees that are from other regions and do not adapt well to the climate in Georgia.
"The Fraser firs we sell are cut and shipped to us within 48 hours and the entire time they’re on our farm they’re in water," Kinsey said.
The Kinseys serve up complimentary apple cider and sell novelties, such as lighted "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" noses.
"We have families coming out now for the third year and they have built memories of the experience," he said. "It is making a good, wholesome family tradition."
For Holly Frias, her husband, Jerry and sons, Matthew, Tony and Simon, the day began Wednesday with the search for a tree to cut down and take home.
"We usually put up our tree on Thanksgiving Day," said Holly Frias. "It’s something we do together as a family. We get to explore all these trees and have fun."
Kinsey said that some people leave with very big trees. He said he has tied 12 foot tall trees to compact cars so small that the tree hangs over the front and back of the car.
As for the family who has thousands of Christmas trees growing in their backyard, when does their tree go up.
"Last year it was on the 23rd, two days before Christmas," Kinsey said.