Oh Fraser fir, Oh Fraser fir, where do you come from?

Mountains and Fraser firs are all you can see for miles from Rodney Richardson’s back porch.

And that’s fine with him, because growing Fraser firs is how he makes his living.

“As a kid, we used to go up to Mount Rogers and cut a Fraser fir for Christmas,” said Richardson, the owner of Mount Rogers Tree Farm in Grayson County. “We had one every year.”

When he began growing firs on Whitetop Mountain using the Mount Rogers Fraser fir seed, it was a no-brainer to name the farm after the mountain where they grow indigenously.

Fraser firs are native to a relatively small area of the highest elevations of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The cool weather-loving trees like the temperatures at the top of Mount Rogers, which is the state’s highest elevation at 5,729 feet. They also grow well on neighboring Whitetop, which is 5,520 feet.

Richardson estimates that 99 percent of the Fraser firs grown in Virginia hail from Grayson.

‘Cadillac of Christmas trees’

In 1980, he planted the first stand of the special variety on his family’s 20 acres of farmland. Since it can take up to 10 years for the firs to grow to market size, Richardson continued working an off-farm job until 1990, when sales of the firs began in earnest. Today he grows 375 acres of what he calls “the Cadillac of Christmas trees.”

Fraser firs hold their needles well, have a nice fragrance and are good for hanging ornaments. But they can’t be harvested until there have been several days of 20-degree weather, because “that’s when the trees set their needles,” Richardson explained.

Each year the Richardson family harvests close to 15,000 large trees and about 3,000 tabletop-size trees, which average 36 to 42 inches. The biggest sellers are between 6 and 8 feet, but the largest so far has been a 44-footer.

They sell to a few mom-and-pop operations, but the majority of their income is from sales to Kroger stores in the mid-Atlantic region. They also operate a retail lot in Prince William County.

Award-winning firs

Mount Rogers firs won the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association’s state championship in 2009 and 2012. Both years the Richardsons were able to take a tree to Virginia’s Executive Mansion in Richmond.

Throughout the year, the trees have to be fertilized, treated for pests, shaped and then tagged. They are marked for size and quality. If a tree is deemed ready for harvest, it gets a tag of a particular color so that workers know to cut it.

Since the Richardson family earns the majority of its income between Thanksgiving and Christmas, they’ve had to start their own Christmas tradition. It began the year they were so busy that it was Christmas Eve before they realized they hadn’t cut their own tree.

They grabbed a flashlight, went out into the closest stand of trees and cut the best one they could find. Now, even when they remember ahead of time, they still cut their own tree at night.

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