The evergreen bridge: planting roots at home
by Susan King
"The choose-and-cut Christmas tree industry has provided a bridge between leaf season and ski season in the High Country, and it has been a great boon to the local economy," said Bryan, landscape superintendent at Appalachian State University and an independent Christmas tree farmer.
In 1972, Bryan earned an associate's degree in forest management from Haywood Technical Institute in Waynesville. For the next 13 and a half years, he worked for Champion International Paper Company, responsible for a territory between the Piedmont and the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia. His positions with Champion included forest technician, area forester, road construction supervisor and area procurement forester.
But, he says, "I always dreamed of coming home."
In 1983, Bryan and his wife, Dorothy, purchased a farm in Watauga County, where he hoped one day to grow Christmas trees. In 1984, the Bryans and their two children took a "leap of faith," as he calls it, and moved back to the High Country. A measure of faith was required because Bryan did not yet have a job or a house for his family. They lived temporarily with Bryan's dad, John Herman Bryan.
Then, in 1987, Bryan's brother, Joe, told him of a job posting for a grounds supervisor at Appalachian. Bryan applied and was hired for the position.
In 1993, Bryan became a certified arborist with extensive knowledge of tree identification, tree biology, soil and safety.
One year later, he was promoted to landscape superintendent at the university, a position he holds today.
"My studies to become a certified arborist have paid great dividends," Bryan said. "They prepared me well for both my careers."
In 2000, when the Bryans opened J & D Tree Farms, it was one of only nine farms in Watauga County that operated as "choose and cut." Now, there are approximately 50 Christmas tree farms, many of them belonging to wholesalers who branched out into the choose-and-cut arena.
There seems to be plenty of business for them all.
"In addition to our faithful local customers, visitors from several states have made a tradition of bringing their families to Watauga County to buy their Christmas trees. Over the years, Dorothy and I have literally watched hundreds of children grow up, right alongside our trees," Bryan said.
Christmas 2001 is one Bryan says he will never forget. "We had cut, baled and were about to ship 75 trees to a buyer when the contract fell through. We remembered that 75 members of the Fire Department of New York, Station No. 5 had died following the attacks of Sept. 11. So, we shipped those trees up to FDNY, and they were distributed to the families of each fallen firefighter. We sent one extra for the fire station. It meant a lot to us, the way it worked out," he said.
Now in his second four-year term as a Watauga County Soil and Water Board supervisor, Bryan has seen the Christmas tree industry become much "greener" during the last 12 years, as integrated pest management practices have become established. IMP has reduced the use of pesticides by approximately 50 percent.
"Fraser firs have shallow root systems, so the ground must be kept cool," Bryan said. "The use of Dutch white clover and other ground covers has helped reduce the use of herbicides. White clover successfully accomplishes what we call 'weed suppression.' It crowds out weeds, which minimizes the need for mowing. At the same time, the white clover blooms attract bees, rabbits and wild turkeys, creating a win-win situation for both land and landowner."
Ground cover management has another visible benefit: more Christmas trees now grow in fields that are green, not brown from the application of weed killers, creating another positive outcome for both trees and soil.
Bryan's professional life and his home life are well-blended. His leap of faith paid off. He is enjoying a wonderful harvest this season, while ensuring a beautiful campus for faculty, students and visitors.
J & D Tree Farm is open on weekends only. For directions, maps and information, go to http://www.jdtreefarm.com.