South Louisiana Christmas Tree Farmer Gets Help From Out-of-state Friends

Pamela Hodson, Morgan, Johnny W.  |  10/22/2005 12:36:57 AM

Louisiana Christmas tree grower Clarke Gernon, at right, explains to Pam Helmsing, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, and Cline Church, a North Carolina grower, how fast the work of straightening his farm’s hurricane-damaged trees has gone – thanks to the help of friends. Church and Harry Yates (not pictured), also a North Carolina grower, brought eight migrant workers from their farms to help Gernon straighten Christmas trees in mid-October after his farm was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

News Release Distributed 10/21/05

There will be trees from the Shady Pond Christmas Tree Farm northeast of New Orleans this year – thanks in large part to some help from fellow growers from North Carolina.

Just a few days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Clarke Gernon, owner of the Shady Pond Farm near Pearl River, knew he was in real trouble.

"I knew the old pond was not as shady as it had been because of all the downed trees I knew I was going to have to clean up," Gernon said, adding, however, that those trees weren’t his major concern.

The biggest problem for Gernon was that after the storm most of the trees destined for this year’s Christmas crop were bent, twisted, broken or otherwise damaged.

According to Gernon, this whole situation was presenting itself at the worst possible time of year, since Christmas tree farmers now have less than six weeks to straighten trees in preparation for the Christmas season.

Gernon, who operates the 40-plus acre enterprise mostly by himself, says growing Christmas trees was a childhood dream of his. "I don’t know why, but I’ve always wanted to do this," he said.

After his family moved to the farm from New Orleans in 1955, the dream just started to take shape he said, adding, "I guess I’m just one of the people who have been able to do what he dreamed of doing."

But the dream looked somewhat more like a nightmare when Gernon returned to the Shady Pond Farm soon after Katrina.

"As soon as I could get back to the farm after the storm, I knew there was a lot of work to do if I was to have a crop for this season," he said.

Unfortunately, however, Gernon quickly realized there was nobody available to help him get the trees standing back up straight. The helpers he usually counted on were either in New Orleans or somewhere else helping with the cleanup.

Gernon, whose business is well known in the New Orleans metropolitan area and the North Shore, said he knew he had to have the trees ready for when his customers started arriving to tag their trees – normally the day after Thanksgiving.

Dr. Pam Hodson, LSU AgCenter regional director for southeastern Louisiana, has worked with Gernon for years on various projects, said Gernon is one of the larger growers in the state and provides a significant number of trees to people in this area of the state.

"Mr. Gernon has been active in the Christmas tree industry for a number of years and has a strong base of customers in New Orleans and other south Louisiana communities," Hodson said.

He is a fixture on local media when holidays roll around and has even been interviewed on national television programs including the Today Show. Because of such exposure and the continued growth of his business, Gernon said he wanted to be ready for the holidays again this year.

So he did what he could to get as many trees as possible back up after the storm, but with the lack of rain since, he could tell the ground was drying out faster than he could get to the trees for straightening.

"I knew if I didn’t do something, and fast, the roots would set and I would probably need a tractor to pull the trees into an upright position again," Gernon said, adding that was the last thing he wanted to do because of the damage the tractor would cause.

That’s when Gernon decided to call his fellow board members at the National Christmas Tree Association, the trade association representing 1,500 growers and retailers of farm-grown Christmas trees.

"In the wake of Katrina, I was having such difficulty hiring help, I called my friends in North Carolina and asked if they could find me any workers," Gernon said, adding, "They called back to let me know that the workers that had been in North Carolina were now working in Louisiana. Even workers that were in the middle of Florida’s harvest season were pulled and sent to New Orleans to work on FEMA contracts for more money."

Gernon said his plan was to straighten the trees, then tamp the dirt down around the roots and hope that they would survive.

After a few days, he received a phone call from two North Carolina growers who had put together a crew of eight migrant workers and were planning to spend three days helping out.

The two growers, Cline Church of Cline Church Nursery in Fleetwood, N.C., and Harry Yates of Yates Christmas Tree Farm in Boone, N.C., arrived at the Shady Pond Christmas Tree Farm Oct. 14 and went to work.

"Those guys worked a lot faster than I could have imagined," Gernon said, adding, "I would never have gotten it done working alone."

The assistance that Gernon’s friends provided will help stem some of the financial losses he was facing, but it won’t eliminate them.

"You’re looking at $20,000 worth of Leyland Cypress and Carolina Sapphire," Gernon said while pointing to a pile of his largest trees that were devastated by the storm. Those trees ordinarily would have been purchased for places like the Governor’s Mansion or by others like the U.S. Navy, he said.

Church and Yates said they know from experience how much work is needed to put a farm back in business after a hurricane and that they wanted to help out.

"It’s the least we could do," Church said. "We are a close-knit bunch in this business, and we have to help each other out."

Gernon, who normally counts on high school students when it’s harvesttime, said the hurricanes definitely caused losses in his businesses, but he said it could have been a lot worse had his friends from North Carolina not shown up when they did.

According to the LSU AgCenter’s 2004 Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, approximately 28,000 Christmas trees with a gross farm value of nearly $1.1 million were produced and sold by 78 growers across Louisiana last year.

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Contact: Pam Hodson at (985) 543-4129 or phodson@agcenter.lsu.edu
Writer: Johnny Morgan at (225) 281-0814 or jmorgan@agcenter.lsu.edu

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