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After 37 years, tree farm still growing, selling

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Brian McGuire wrestled the Christmas tree into the back of the pickup. The freshly cut, dark green tree was wrapped in red and white netting, and when McGuire got it up on his shoulder, and up on the edge of the pickup, he paused to pose so his wife could take a picture.

"OK?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said, and put the digital camera back in her purse, and he rolled the tree into the back of the truck.

Brian and Suzanne McGuire picked a Frazier fir this year, because it's the easiest to decorate, they said. Every year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, more than 600 people, like the McGuires, buy Frazier firs at the Worthington Tree Farm, in Hampton.

Earl Worthington, the farm's 78-year-old owner, said he and his family now sell eight different types of Christmas trees, but when the couple started 37 years ago, they only had Virginia Pines.

That first year, "in 19 and 70," he cleared an acre of land and planted 1,300 Virginia Pines seedlings. It was kind of an act of faith, he said.

"We didn't know if people would come out here to cut Christmas trees or not," Worthington said. "There were no choose-and-cut operations around back then."

Worthington recalls he was working full-time at the Georgia Experiment Station, an agricultural research center in Griffin, when he read a newspaper article about Christmas tree farms, and decided to launch a tree-growing operation.

In 1973, after four summers of growth, the tree farm opened, and the Worthingtons sold 30 trees. It was simple: "They came down here and cut the trees and came to the house and paid for them," Worthington said.

The second year, the farm sold 130 trees, and the family realized they needed to expand if they wanted to meet the live-tree demand for a third year in a row.

"At that point, I began to scramble," he said. "We were the only Christmas tree farm for a while. For 10 years or so, we had a monopoly, but I was still working full-time and I couldn't grow enough trees to supply the demand."

These days, Worthington has 12 acres of trees at 145 Twin Oaks Drive, off of Jonesboro Road near Nash Farms. Christmas tree sales hover between 1,500 and 2,000 every year, Worthington said.

The farm must compete with the big sellers, like Lowe's, and despite the increasing number of artificial trees, Worthington said the business is going strong.If he was going to quit, Worthington said, he would have done it years ago.

When he was 65, and planting a crop of trees, Worthington had a kind of crisis of faith. He was retired, and thinking about death and growing depressed that he might be planting trees he would never see cut. "I was asking myself why I was doing it," Worthington said. "What was it for? Then I just decided I enjoy it and I will keep planting trees as long as I'm able and enjoying it."

Sometimes people ask him the question he asked himself -- why is he still toiling over the trees? -- and Worthington tells them, "When I'm gone, the little trees will keep growing."

That momentary crisis of purpose passed "a lot of crops of trees ago," though, and now Worthington is not just planting trees for future Christmases without worrying if he'll be around to celebrate. He's even trying to develop new, Georgia breeds of firs with an elaborate, long-term experimental grafting project.

"It's not a big money-making thing," he explained. "The thing I like, kids come and they run and run and jump on the hay. We used to have goats, and they'd say, 'Look mom, reindeer!'"

Worthington's son, Bobby Worthington, said that, though about two percent of customers look like they've been pulled away from a football game, most of the families are looking forward to finding a tree. "Even in the rain, people tend to be semi-festive about it," he said.