Russell and Beau Estes recently made a trip to Washington D.C., that few farmers get a chance to make.

They accompanied an 18.5-foot Fraser fir tree grown on their Jefferson, N.C., farm to the White House and helped present the award-winning tree to Mrs. Obama.

In August they won the honor of providing the tree by winning the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) Grand Championship. In doing so, Russell and Beau joined an elite club of 12 North Carolina tree farmers, who have presented the White House tree to the reigning First Lady.

The winning North Carolina-grown Christmas tree is displayed during the Holiday Season in the White House Blue Room.

Competition for the honor of providing the presidential tree is fierce.

It is fitting that this year’s tree will come from the same state from which President Obama was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for his second term in office.

This year marks the 12th time the White House Christmas tree has come from North Carolina since the National Christmas Tree Association began supplying them in 1966.

Seven  of those have come from Ashe County, N.C., where Peak Farms is located, near the state's northern border, about 100 miles from the site of the Democratic National Convention, which was held Sept.  4-6 in Charlotte.

Last year's tree came from the home state of GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, in Neshkoro, Wisconsin — between Madison and Wausau.

Last year marked the seventh time Wisconsin provided the tree, tied with Washington for second most, behind, North Carolina.

In addition, the Reserve Champion, selected by the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), provides a Christmas tree for the vice-president’s residence. This year, North Carolina grower PaulSmith won that honor.

Smith, who owns and operates Cool Springs Nursery in Banner Elk, N.C., provided a stately Fraser fir in mid-November for use by vice-president Biden and his family at Blair House, official residence of the vice-president.

Made history

This is the first time in recent history and possibly ever that the same state provided Christmas trees for the White House Blue Room and for Blair House in the same year

Trees entered in the NCTA contest must fit into one of five species categories:

• True Fir;

• Douglas-fir;

• Spruce;

• Pine; 

• Other.

A panel of judges, made up of long-time growers and past contest winners, select first, second and third-place winners in each category. Then, attendees to the annual NCTA convention and a panel of consumer judges vote for their favorite among the species finalists.

Those vote totals determined the Grand Champion and Reserve Champion trees, and the growers of those winning trees receive the honor of providing the Official White House Christmas tree and the Christmas tree for the residence of the vice-president.

 “In order to qualify to compete in the NCTA contest you must first compete in a state or regional contest and win. The North Carolina Christmas Tree Association has its annual contest every September.

The Grand Champion ‘Fraser fir’ category winner and the first place “other species” winner then qualify to compete in the NCTA contest the following August,” says Jennifer Greene, executive director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association.

“The fact an American farmer gets to provide a Christmas tree from his family farm to be displayed in the White House indicates just how important farm-grown Christmas trees are to the Christmas traditions of our country,” says Cline Church, NCTA president and a Christmas tree grower from Fleetwood, N.C.

“Our whole industry is proud of Russell and Beau for showcasing our crop in the

most famous house in America,” Church adds.

“The fact that two growers were selected from North Carolina for such a prestigious honor speaks a lot about the quality trees that make up the state’s $85 million Christmas tree industry,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

Russell Estes had won the national contest once before in 2008 as a co-winner, along with Jessie Davis of River Ridge Tree Farms in Crumpler, N.C.

This year he entered a tree from Peak Farms, the farm he co-owns with his son Beau.

“Winning this year is a different kind of exciting because this is an ‘all in the family’ type of farm,” said Russell Estes. “Both my son and daughter and all my grand-kids live here at Peak Farms, and that makes this business and winning the contest this year extra special,” he adds.

Began as a hobby

Like so many North Carolina Christmas tree growers, Russell Estes first planted Christmas trees in 1979 as a hobby and to support his primary job as a golf course manager. Today, Peak Farms grows about 300,000 trees.

Winning the Grand Championship is just part of the whole experience of being selected to provide the official White House Christmas tree.

The competition is held in the summer and 8-9 foot tall trees are judged.

In October, White House staff personnel come to the winning farm and select the winning 18-19 foot tree. The winning tree is cut and provided to the White House shortly after Thanksgiving.

Not only does North Carolina lead the nation in the number of Christmas trees provided to the White House, the state is also the second leading producer of Christmas trees.

 North Carolina has 1,600 growers producing an estimated 50 million Fraser Fir Christmas trees growing on over 25,000 acres. Fraser Fir trees represent over 90 percent of all species grown in North Carolina.

Overall the green industry, including Christmas trees, produced about $709 million in farm income in 2011.

Agriculture is North Carolina’s largest industry, topping the next two largest (tourism and military) combined.

Greene notes the Real Christmas tree industry promotes local agriculture  and supports small, family owned businesses.

When deciding between a farm-grown live Christmas tree and an artificial tree, Greene stresses consumers should consider these ten factors:

• Real Christmas trees are plantation grown on American family farms, making an important economic contribution to many rural communities in the United States;

• Real Christmas trees absorb carbon dioxide and other harmful “greenhouse” gases and release fresh oxygen into the air;

• Real Christmas trees have a fragrance beyond compare;

• One acre of Christmas trees provides the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. There are about 500,000 acres of Christmas trees in the United States;

• Young, fast-growing trees like Christmas trees release more oxygen than mature forest trees;

• For every Real Christmas tree harvested, another one is planted in its place to ensure a steady supply year after year. Christmas tree fields support turkey, quail, songbirds, rabbits and deer;

• When planted outside after the Holidays, balled and burlaped real Christmas trees temper winds, suppress loud sounds, filter dust, moderate temperature, and dissipate odors;

• Real Christmas trees are an all-American renewable, recyclable resource;

• Recycled Real Christmas trees are also used as wind and water barriers at beaches and river beds to fight sand and soil erosion;

• They protect our water supplies, and provide refuge for wildlife. When sunk in ponds, they provide excellent refuge and feeding areas for fish;

rroberson@farmpress.com