With the wind hardly stirring and the summer broil under way by mid-morning, Kim Yerich belts out, "Now would be a good time for some snow."
As sweat beads down his sun-drenched nose, the Berkeley County Christmas tree farmer straps on a large sheering tool and begins lopping away uneven branches on a field of spruce pines.
Yerich knows he has to prune now to shape the evergreens for the upcoming tree-buying season. He'll trim again by early fall, just one of the many tasks for himself and about 100 similar tree growers across South Carolina as they constantly prepare for a holiday season that never ends in the conical fields.
From planting and pruning to fertilizing and spraying, work begins in the biting cold of January and stretches nonstop into the nip of late fall, just as the holiday season rolls in and makes it all worthwhile.
"There's always something," said Yerich, as he pushes up his sun-shielding floppy hat to wipe his brow. "A lot of people think you just plant a tree and let it grow, and that's all there is to it. Nothing in farming is easy. You are fighting Mother Nature, disease and insects."
Still, he wouldn't change a thing.
"I love what I do," Yerich said while standing in the middle of a grove of trees on the slightly rolling fields of his family farm.
During the holiday season, when his Lebanon Christmas Tree Farm welcomes scores of families scouring the manicured forest for the perfect tree to plant presents under, Yerich focuses on bringing joy to children's faces with barrel rides and other family-oriented holiday activities on his 15-acre tree farm.
Planting and pruning
When the holiday season ends, Yerich, who also serves as president of the S.C. Christmas Tree Association, begins working on the trees people will enjoy several years from now.
As many as 2,000 seedlings are planted in January in between other maturing trees on his tucked-away acreage off Cypress Campground Road. Those tiny trees include a variety of future living room adornments, including Virginia and spruce pines, Carolina Sapphire, Leyland cypress, the slower-growing Blue Ice cypress and a few cedar trees.
They require fertilization, which Yerich and family members apply by hand, and constant oversight as drought, fungi and insects can take their toll. In about five to 10 years, some of the varieties will mature enough to bring smiles to a family at holiday time.
For more mature trees, Yerich usually launches a first pruning in May before a second one by late summer or early fall.
This year was different. With scant rain in May and the searing heat wave that followed beyond Memorial Day, he bypassed the normal first shaping of trees because they had not produced much new growth.
"I had to go buy several water hoses and string them together or, otherwise, I would have lost most of them," he said, stooping to pull up a tiny brown tree that didn't survive the late-spring scorch.
At the 70-acre Penland Christmas Tree Farm in York County, one of the largest in the state, the hands-on, year-round operation is much the same, but there are some differences for the family-managed enterprise that can sell more than 3,000 trees in a few short weeks between Thanksgiving and mid-December.
Steve Penland, who serves as secretary of the state association, and his family take two weeks off after the holiday rush, but after that the work year begins for the sprawling farm west of Lake Wylie on the edge of the bustling Charlotte metro area.
Unlike Yerich, who plants new seedlings where trees were recently cut down between other less-mature growers, Penland prefers to replant in huge swaths.
"We are one of the few farms that clear-cut the fields," Penland said.
Maturing stands remain, but on fields with about 5 percent of the trees that did not sell, Penland clears the acreage, pulls up the old tree stumps, plows the land and prepares it for the next planting.
He also doesn't normally have to fertilize the trees once they are planted because his farm performs soil testing ahead of time to see what nutrients are there or needed.
Penland, in the Piedmont, also plants a little later than Yerich of the Lowcountry.
"We tend to plant in late February or March," he said. "It's all weather-dependent. January is usually wet, and February is a little dryer. If it's too wet, we can't get in the field."
In March and April, as the warmer weather heats up the soil and all sorts of dormant seeds spring to life around the trees, Penland begins hand-spraying weed control and mowing between the rows.
Like Yerich, Penland and his family also had to hand-water trees during the late spring heat wave. They hitched a huge water tank behind a tractor and hosed down their newer fields.
"We didn't lose many trees," he said, after a morning of mowing fast-growing grass shoots. "The grass takes off and can grow up to six inches after a shower."
In addition to mowing, farmers have to spray for fungi that can kill a tree.
"Fungus is our biggest culprit," Penland said. "We don't do much insecticide spraying."
Fruits of labor
Though the upcoming holiday shopping season is a little shorter than last year because of Thanksgiving falling on Nov. 28, Penland isn't opening the tree farm a week earlier to capitalize on early-season decorators.
"A lot of farms in South Carolina will open early, but we believe in Thanksgiving being Thanksgiving and let the holiday season begin the next day," Penland said. "The demand for trees in South Carolina is so high that all of our farms sell out pretty fast."
About 80 percent of all trees are sold by Dec. 10, giving families time to decorate and enjoy the purchase before Christmas Eve exactly two weeks later.
Like Penland, Stephen Steed at his 26-acre Merry Christmas Tree Farm in Central, in South Carolina's northwest corner, plants by the field, as well.
He performs all the pruning and other tasks like everyone else, but right now he's fighting a needle blight that can kill a tree.
"I can either pull it up or spray it," Steed said of combating the problem.
And he is not alone in fighting diseased trees. Yerich is dealing with it, too.
"I believe some of the trees will come back," said Yerich, looking at browned branches on a row of trees on the edge of the field. "I've been spraying them."
Farmers are testing a disease-resistant variety, but it's too early to tell if it will take hold.
Steed will sell 800 to 900 trees each season. He would sell more if he had them.
During the spring drought, Steed estimates he lost about 40 percent of the trees he planted in one field earlier this year.
"If I plant 1,500 trees each year, I generally lose about 500 of them," he said.
Despite drought and disease, farmers expect another good tree-selling year in South Carolina.
"When unemployment is low and people feel good about their jobs, Christmas tree sales are high," Penland said. "Last year was a very good year for all growers. A few years ago we were wishing for customers. We can't grow them fast enough right now."
One thing all the farms have in common in South Carolina — they don't grow Fraser firs. The popular trees only grow naturally at an altitude above 4,500 feet in the southern Appalachians and are usually shipped to South Carolina tree lots from the mountain farms of western North Carolina.
And, like last year, they are probably going to be in short supply again this year since some farmers left the business after the Deep Recession 10 years ago and not as many trees were planted that are now mature enough to be harvested.
South Carolina is by no means the largest producer of Christmas trees in the nation. That honor belongs to Oregon, followed by North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Palmetto State comes in at No. 25 in number of acres under production, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
For the state's Christmas tree farmers, though, where they fall on the production list isn't important.
"The best part about our work all year-round is seeing families out here doing something together for three or four hours and seeing children enjoying something without electronics in their hand," Yerich said. "Most of the tree farms offer some kind of entertainment. We like to call it agri-tourism."