At Summerdale's Fish River Trees, business is ever(green) growing

Weekend hobby grows into Baldwin County's largest Christmas tree farm

MELANIE LECROY
Lifestyle Editor
melanie@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 11/25/22

Steve Mannhard’s cellphone is ringing. As soon as he hangs up, his office phone rings.

The switch has flipped at Fish River Trees in Summerdale. It’s quickly gone from quiet, hard work …

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At Summerdale's Fish River Trees, business is ever(green) growing

Weekend hobby grows into Baldwin County's largest Christmas tree farm

Posted

Steve Mannhard’s cellphone is ringing. As soon as he hangs up, his office phone rings.

The switch has flipped at Fish River Trees in Summerdale. It’s quickly gone from quiet, hard work caring for trees to operating a retail business full of phone calls, emails and eager customers.

After the phone calls, Mannhard sits down at a card table inside the retail shop at his tree farm. In just one week, families will flood the parking lot and head out in search of their perfect Christmas tree. But right now, Mannhard has a long list of to-dos and issues to handle.

“My head is spinning right now,” Mannhard said. “I just got a call about when a truck full of fir trees is coming in. Instead of coming in Saturday when I have 15 or 20 guys here, it is coming in tomorrow morning when I have three or four unloading hundreds and hundreds of trees out of a truck. But we will be all right.”

When asked how he got into the Christmas tree business, Mannhard’s immediate response was, “Well that is interesting.”

The year was 1981. He was teaching English to seniors at Foley High School.

“There were a lot of us at the time. It (Christmas tree farming) was promoted by Auburn as a cash crop and something you could do with your extra acreage,” Mannhard said. “They were promoting the Virginia Pine, and they thought it was going to take over the Christmas tree industry and we could grow it three to four times faster than the fir trees up north.”

Mannhard thought the tree farm would be a nice job for the summer and weekends. He and his neighbor went into business together.

“We planted way too many trees. We planted 7,000 and then another 7,000 and then another 5,000. All of a sudden, we had 20,000 of these Virginia Pines,” he said. “It turns out that down here, it is a year-round thing and not just something you do in the summer when you are off.

“My partner had a full-time job. I had a full-time job, and I was also very busy in the Army Reserve and the management of it. Something had to go, so the teaching went.”

He ended up liking the tree business, but his neighbor-turned-business-partner did not and exited after a year.

“I think there was something in me that always wanted to farm. I ended up really liking growing these trees,” Mannhard said. “The other part of it is every now and then I look out on this farm and say, ‘Gosh! I created this farm.’”

He also enjoys being his own boss.

“Just like any small-business, man I love having my own business as opposed to working for somebody. I only have to answer to myself. It is kind of the fruit of your own labor here. The harder you work at it and the more you put yourself to it, the more successful it is going to be,” he said.

He joked that he was a little more successful than some. When he got into the industry, there were 30 choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms in Baldwin County.

Mannhard said there are now “two and a half.” One north of Bay Minette, a small farm in Daphne and Fish River Trees.

Baldwin County has seen a steady influx of new residents over recent years, many of whom are young families. They’re Mannhard’s biggest customer base.

The 40 acres with around 20,000 trees isn’t even enough, and he is working to figure out how to plant more. You will find a tree at the farm, but it might not be the 12-foot fir you dream about for your new home with vaulted ceilings. Tree shortages nationwide have made it difficult to grow larger trees, according to Mannhard.

“I don’t have any trees over 10 feet on the property. What happens — and this is nationwide — all the trees that are eight feet are cut down. Then you are left with six- and seven-foot trees to grow to eight or nine the next year. But you don’t have the eight and nine to grow to 10 and 12 feet the following year,” Mannhard explained. “It is a unique supply and demand problem.”

Mannhard does not like when he doesn’t have the trees his customers desire, but he does his best.

This year, he will have 2,500 fir trees from up north trucked in, and he ordered as many larger sizes as he could.

He also mentioned that some would be in stock for the Thanksgiving weekend rush, and then more will arrive in December so don’t fret if you can’t make it the first two weekends.

FOLLOW THE TRENDS

Trends hit every industry, including those surrounding Christmas. Mannhard said people are giving up artificial trees in favor of the more environmentally friendly real trees, which can be recycled.

Container trees are something that Mannhard saw the demand for 25 years ago when customers were in the field trying to dig up trees.

Due to a lack of knowledge, the customers didn’t end up successful, so he started to grow trees in containers. Fish River Trees grows anywhere from 500 to 1,000, and they sell out every year.

They get a double value out of it. They take it inside and decorate it. Then they take it outside after Christmas and plant it. There is another advantage to the living Christmas tree: they do not dry out unless you fail at watering.

The biggest trend Mannhard has had to adjust to is the desire to get a tree earlier and earlier. He said people have steadily moved up their tree-finding dates on the calendar over the last 15 years.

He fought it initially, but then he got on board. Fish River Trees now opens the weekend before Thanksgiving.

The biggest weekend is Thanksgiving weekend. Over 50% of his sales this season will happen before Dec. 1. The final trend Mannhard has seen in the industry over the last 10 years is the addition of agritainment, which is the promotion of farms as places to visit for entertainment.

Mannhard got on board.

Each year, parents stand their children in front of a wood painted tree with a measuring stick to compare to last year. Children whisper into Santa’s ear what they would like to see under the tree, and visitors young and young-at-heart adore the animals in the live manger scene.

A visit to Fish River Trees in more than just picking out a tree. It is a family tradition.

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