Oh Christmas tree: Hurricane limits Panhandle tree farms

Heather Osbourne @heatheronwfdn
Nov 22, 2018 at 2:48 PM
Nov 22, 2018 at 2:48 PM
CHIPLEY — Northwest Florida residents who hope to chop down their own tree this year might have to hurry to snag one before they’re gone because of Hurricane Michael and other factors.Even before the storm, only a handful of Christmas tree farms remained in the region. Whispering Pines Christmas Tree Farm in Milton, Strickland Christmas Tree Farm in DeFuniak Springs, Powell Tree Farm in Sneads and Maphis Nursery and Tree Farm in Washington County are the only four in the Panhandle.Carrie Maphis stepped outside her family-owned Christmas tree farm Oct. 11 and was horrified by what she saw.Maphis had 1,300 trees planted for this year’s season and the family was excited for customers to start pouring in come Thanksgiving Day. That excitement faded after the storm.”All 1,300 trees were laying on the ground in the field,” Maphis said. “It was overwhelming to see. You look at your loss and your potential loss, but you’re thankful for your life. We were thankful that our homes weren’t destroyed.”An estimated 100 million trees are put up worldwide each year, of which 30 million will adorn homes in the United States. Florida growers make up a fraction of that market, with only 18 farms registered with the Florida Christmas Association.The Maphis family said following the storm they were  left with two options after Michael — try to save the trees or accept the loss.”We’re one of the only Christmas tree farms left (in the area),” Maphis said. “So that was part of our decision in trying to save our trees. Our customers out in Fort Walton Beach and Panama City get to come to the country for the day and they get to cut down their own tree and make those memories.”We’re trying to bring the normalcy back that everyone around here needs,” she added.In an effort to save the trees, the Maphis family worked hard to put them back upright and stake them in place. The rain, Maphis said, helped a lot with getting the trees replanted and flourishing.Still, about 350 trees were lost, she said.Over at Whispering Pines Christmas Tree Farm in Milton, owner Mike Kelly said they also will be slim on trees this season. Although Kelly said the farm fared OK in the storm, they were forced to downsize to allow their soil to replenish itself.”We’ll probably have about 1,000 ready for market come Thanksgiving Day,” Kelly said. “We’ve been here over 30 years and have 35 acres for Christmas trees.”Strickland’s Christmas Tree Farm in DeFuniak Springs said they were somewhat affected by the storm, but did not want to give details. However, they did say the farm will be open for the season.Similar to Maphis Tree Farm, Powell Tree Farm in Sneads was also devastated by Hurricane Michael.Aside from damage to their own home, owners Mark and Kay Powell said they lost their gift shop, storage shed and pole barn. All the Christmas trees were leaning sideways but, thankfully, they only lost about 20.”We’re just taking it day by day,” Kay said. “It will be a slow process to rebuild the structures. We’re going to open Thanksgiving weekend, anyway. People are going to be looking for a sense of normalcy. So if our customers want to come, then we want to be open for them.”Maphis said it will take about four years to fully recover from the storm, but they plan to continue selling Christmas trees for years to come. The farm celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.”It’s an ironic anniversary present from Mother Nature,” Maphis joked. “This has been a tradition for a lot of families for the full 20 years. They brought their children, and now their children are bringing their children. We are a staple in the community. We thought it would be nice for people to know we’re still here and we still have trees.”

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