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Photos by John Godbey Russ Gordon stands in front of his grove of Virginia pine Christmas trees in Hartselle.

Life on a Christmas Tree Farm Hartselle man who portrays Santa opens cut-your-own site

By Catherine Godbey

For the Enquirer

Walking through the rows of Virginia pines, some towering 3 feet above his head, Russ Gordon stroked his long white beard and curled up the ends of his mustache.

“I thought, what could be easier than growing Christmas trees. You plant them, God waters them, you sit back and wait and people come buy them,” the 68-year-old Hartselle man said. “Oh, was I wrong. Farming is not for the faint-hearted.”

After almost four years of planting and growing Christmas trees — and losing hundreds of them to drought and insects —The Littlest Christmas Tree Farm operated by the husband-and-wife team of Russ and Linda Gordon opened in November.

The farm is one of the few cut-your-own Christmas tree farms in north Alabama.

Set less than half a mile off U.S. Highway 31, the farm – which features free hot chocolate and gingerbread cookies, a chance to watch Mrs. Claus make wreaths, an elf hunt and a visit with Santa Claus – offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping and party planning.

“For us, this is nostalgic. When I was growing up, we always had a real Christmas tree,” Gordon said. “When Linda and I got married, we would go out in the woods, find the perfect tree and cut it down. Now we want to offer that opportunity to other families.”

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, in 2018, 33 million Americans bought real Christmas trees, while 24 million opted for artificial trees.

The Gordons’ journey to operating a Christmas tree farm began when property north of the couple’s home came up for sale in 2015.

“I snatched it up because I didn’t want my property values to go down,” he explained. “My intention was to divide it into three equal parcels for my children to build houses on, but they had reasons that plan wouldn’t work. That’s when I started thinking about growing something here.”

For Gordon, now in his 10th year portraying Santa Claus, a Christmas tree farm seemed like a natural fit – that is, after he ruled out a pecan grove and a strawberry field.

“I came up with a pecan grove, but my daughter said no one shells pecans anymore because it is too time consuming and too hard. My daughter suggested strawberries, but that is too labor intensive, and you only get four weeks in the spring. That’s when it occurred to me to do Christmas trees,” Gordon said.

In January 2018, Gordon planted 1,000 Virginia pines and lost 300. Of the 1,300 he planted in February 2019, nearly half succumbed to a drought in March.

Driving through the rows of trees in his red truck, which he jokingly described as a transformer — hinting the truck transforms into a sleigh — Gordon pointed to the hundreds of trees 1-3 feet tall.

“Even though we had a rough start, we had good seasons in 2020 and 2021. Most of the trees have survived so far,” Gordon said.

The trees from the farm’s first crop now stand 9-11 feet tall. Gordon said he has been hopeful for good business this year so he will not have to cut down and burn dozens of trees that will be too large by next Christmas.

“It will break my heart to have to do it, but if you don’t cut a tree, you can’t plant a tree,” Gordon said.

To give visitors to the farm a complete Christmas experience, Gordon dons one of his specially-made Santa suits and listens to children’s wish lists.

In the barn Gordon set up a meeting space, complete with a chair featuring carvings of Christmas trees and the star of Bethlehem, a stash of miniature candy canes, toy wooden trains and a Virginia pine decorated with ornaments and lights.

“That’s one of our trees from the farm. I chose an exceptionally ugly one because, once you bring it in the house and decorate it, it looks like a beautiful tree. It doesn’t really have a good conical shape to it, but I don’t care; I like it,” Gordon said.

Along with Christmas trees, the farm offers free Christmas-themed children’s books with donations accepted, free gingerbread cookies, hot chocolate and Russian tea and a station to write letters to Santa.

“We even have a mailbox they can drop their letters in. We can assure you the letters get to Santa and that, yes, Santa writes each and every child back via the United States Postal Service,” Gordon said.

The Gordons also sell live wreaths created by Linda Gordon from the Virginia pines impacted by the Nantucket pine tip moth. Russ Gordon learned of the insect, which lays eggs on the tree, the first year of his planting effort. Once hatched, the larvae climb to the tip of a limb, eat inside

the wood and spin cocoons. That action causes the tip of the branch to turn brown but also creates three new sprouts around the dead limb.

“Essentially what they are doing is shaping the tree and making it more full. Nature is a beautiful thing,” Russ Gordon said. “But if the insect gets the header, it stunts the tree’s growth, and there is not a center limb anymore.

“Other farmers say to cut them down. I let them grow and use them for making wreaths.”

While Gordon handles most of the work on the 10-acre farm — mowing the grass, planting the trees and spraying them for insects — the farm also serves as a family business. Gordon’s grandsons assist on Saturdays. Luke Minnon, 16, drives the tractor, toting trees from the field to the baling area, and 12-year-old J.J. Minnon, who describes himself as the elf in charge, hands out saws and leads visitors through a safety briefing. Justice Minnon, 9, oversees the gingerbread, hot chocolate and tea area.

“Running a Christmas tree farm is hard work. I walk a couple of miles a day maintaining everything. It keeps me healthy and allows me to do what I love and what I see as my ministry, portraying Santa,” said Gordon, a former U.S. Army chaplain and Baptist pastor. “I have a passion for sharing the real reason for the season. That’s why I am Santa. I want to tell people about Jesus’ birth.”

Along with The Littlest Christmas Tree Farm, the tri-county area of Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties offers one other cut-your-own farm. The husband-and-wife team of Kip and Jo George opened Trim-A-Tree Farm in Athens in 2007.

Other north Alabama cut-your-own tree farms include Frazier Christmas Tree Farm in Albertville, Thornhill Christmas Tree Farm in Pisgah, Shell’s Christmas Tree Farm in Tuscumbia and Sokoll’s Christmas Tree Farm in Florence.

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