N.C. tree shines as center of White House Christmas decor

by | Dec 1, 2021

A Christmas tree from North Carolina is now on display as the official White House Christmas tree and the centerpiece of the home’s Christmas decorations. The Fraser fir from Peak Farms in Ashe County is in the Blue Room. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden officially revealed the decorated tree along with the other White House Christmas decor on Monday, Nov. 29. The North Carolina tree was prominently featured in her social media posts and the webpage announcing the 2021 decorative theme Gifts from the Heart.

From the White House: The Blue Room, featuring the Official White House Christmas Tree, celebrates the Gift of Peace and Unity. Cascading down the tree, peace doves carry a shimmering banner embossed with the names of each state and territory of the United States, reminding us all of the importance of unity and national harmony. 

“The greatest honor you can have is to present the White House tree because I’m representing all the tree growers nationwide, and I’m especially proud it’s coming out of North Carolina and coming out of Ashe County,” said Rusty Estes of Peak Farms on Nov. 17 when the tree was cut. “That tells you something [about] what kind of product we can grow right here.”

Watch a video recap of the tree cutting and send-off celebration.

This year’s tree marks the third time Estes has been part of supplying the White House Christmas tree. In 2008, Estes and his partner Jessie Davis at River Ridge Tree Farms presented a tree to the George W. and Laura Bush White House. In 2012, Estes and his son Beau presented a tree from their Peak Farms to the Barack and Michelle Obama White House. They also provided the Christmas tree for Vice President Mike Pence’s official residence in 2018.

The tree just before cutting on Nov. 17, 2021

How it started
When Estes first started growing Christmas trees, he wasn’t expecting it to grow into a full-time business, and he certainly never imagined sending a tree – much less three – to the White House. When he first planted Christmas trees in 1979, it was just a supplement to his job as a golf course superintendent in Avery County. By the next year, he bought a Christmas tree farm in that county, which proved to be a good fit since the golf course was closed from the beginning of November to the end of April. In 1992, new management at the golf course meant Estes lost his job.

“I did not know it at the time: biggest blessing of my life,” Estes said.

In 1994, Estes started Peak Farms on 70 acres in Ashe County. When he loaded the first trees, the crew included his wife, his 12-year-old and 13-year-old children and one employee. His son Beau joined the team full time several years ago, and Peak Farms now employs six men year round. There are 125 seasonal employees, including 25 H2A workers from Mexico.

What it takes to be White-House-worthy
The most important criterion for a White House Christmas tree is height. It must be 18.5 feet tall to touch the ceiling of the Blue Room. This year’s tree was cut about a foot taller so it could be trimmed to fit at the White House. The tree also has to have a good solid width around the base and a nice-looking taper. Generally speaking, once the tree is selected – usually in October each year – it’s not treated any differently. There’s no special pruning or final fertilizing or anything. Any special treatment would have happened in the years beforehand to ensure the tree grows strong, big and beautiful.

“It’s almost a lifetime venture because we’ve got 20 years basically invested in this tree – 20 years that’s going to the White House that we have loved it, we’ve planted it, fertilize it, trimmed it, done everything, cared for it,” Estes said. “We didn’t have this in mind when we got started in the tree business, but it’s blossomed into it.

“And it’s just like growing anything, you have to know the ins and outs and the right fertilizers and the right chemicals that you use and the right grooming, trimming – the whole works. To get a normal, marketable tree – a seven to eight-foot tree – it takes me about seven years from the time I plant it. So it’s not an overnight thing.”

The selection process
Each year, the official White House Christmas tree comes from the winners of the most recent National Christmas Tree Association contest. The contest is held every two years, so two Grand Champions are actually chosen during the bi-annual contest. (Therefore, it’s already known the 2022 tree will come from a farm in Auburn, Penn.) To make it to the national contest, Christmas tree growers across the country must first win their respective state contests. They submit seven-foot trees for the state and national contests, proving they have what it takes to grow a nice tree. A grower is only eligible every four years Estes said.

Each October, the winning grower works with staff from the White House to select the official White House Christmas Tree for the Blue Room. The First Lady and her staff may have certain characteristics they’re looking for each year. For example, this year they wanted a tree that was slightly more narrow than some of the other recent trees, said Ashe County Cooperative Extension Director Travis Birdsell.

North Carolina growers have won the national contest more than any other state. The tree from Peak Farms is the 14th tree from North Carolina to be the official White House Christmas tree.

Big agricultural business for Ashe County
During an Ashe County send-off celebration for the tree on the day it was cut, Birdsell spoke about the importance of the Christmas tree industry. He said Christmas tree farmers in Ashe County alone grow about 24 million trees on 14,000 acres of land.

“Today, Fraser fir Christmas tree production is Ashe County’s largest economic sector at $115 million,” Birdsell said.

The industry in Ashe County started in the late 1950’s, and in the early 90’s, the county had close to 900 growers producing 8 million trees on about 4,000 acres annually – worth $11 million, Birdsell said. (The North Carolina Christmas Tree Association reports the state’s industry traces beginnings to nearby Avery County and that by 1988 the entire N.C. Christmas tree industry was valued at $55 million and harvested 4.1 million trees every year.)

“That’s a lot of trees, but we never lose sight that each and every one is special to individual families,” Birdsell said about the 24 million trees growing in Ashe County. “Each family searches for the tree that is worthy to be displayed in their home, allow its branches to hold their memories, place their gifts around it and adorn the top with an angel or star. This is why we work so hard and take pride in what we do.”

Helped by agricultural research
While growing Christmas trees may not immediately sound like traditional farming, it’s certainly an agricultural endeavor.

“It does not matter what you farm, I guarantee you any farmer will tell you the same thing: they love the land, no matter what they’re growing. That’s what I like to do. I like to get out on the farm. I like to get dirty, and I like to enjoy Mother Nature,” Estes said. “You’re always dealing with Mother Nature. Some years you get plenty of rain. Some years we don’t. Sometimes the temperature’s hot. I mean, there’s all kinds of things.”

Harmful pests or diseases can also be a challenge. Researchers from N.C. State University have been helpful in figuring out ways to minimize the challenges and maximize the production of North Carolina Christmas trees. Much of that research is done at the Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs, which is a partnership between the university and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In addition to the research station, researchers also work on commercial tree farms such as Peak Farms.

“They do research on our farm – various things of all kinds: herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, anything,” Estes said. “We work hand in hand with the university. I help them, and they help me.”

Note: For the first time in many years, Peak Farms is selling trees at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh this year.