Dec 3, 2023 - News

Yes, Florida has Christmas tree farms

A man in a hoodie and baseball cap stands behind a green Carolina Sapphire cypress tree cut in a conical shape to look like a Christmas tree.

Jewel Lay, the owner of Lazy Lay Acres, a Christmas tree farm in Dade City, demonstrates on a Carolina Sapphire how he trims trees into their iconic conical shape. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios

It was actually chilly during a recent evening at the Christmas tree farm, dry and sharp, a northern kind of cold.

Yes, but: Other signs of Florida remained. A hole in the sandy soil marked the burrow of a gopher tortoise. Spanish moss hung from oak branches amid the rows of conical-shaped main attractions.

  • And then there's Jewel Lay, a born-and-raised Floridian who will tell you if you try to make an offer on his 58-acre Dade City farm, that you're wasting your time.

What's happening: Yes, Florida has Christmas tree farms, and yes, you can pick and cut down your own a la "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

Why it matters: The farms offer a unique experience for Floridians used to shopping for pre-cut trees at big-box stores or church parking lots — and they provide a glimpse into a time before those big-box stores even existed.

  • "It's a family thing. I believe in traditions," Lay, 49, said as he showed an Axios reporter around his farm, sipping from a can of Mountain Dew. "This is Florida."

The big picture: There are at least 19 such farms across the state, mostly in north Florida and the Panhandle, per the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. They go as far south as Lay's farm, called Lazy Lay Acres.

  • More adventurous tree shoppers can buy permits to cut down trees in the Ocala National Forest or Lake Wales Ridge State Forest.

The intrigue: These aren't the fir or spruce trees you may be used to, which are harvested by the millions in states including Oregon, North Carolina and Michigan. Florida's sandy soil and warm climate yield sand pines, red cedars, and Carolina Sapphire and Leyland cypress trees.

  • And yes, they do smell, though not like your standard Christmas tree-scented candle: lighter, more herby or citrusy, depending on the tree.
  • Firs tend to hold their needles for longer, which is why they make up the bulk of the wholesale market, National Christmas Tree Association seasonal spokesperson Jill Sidebottom told Axios.

Zoom in: Lay, 49, took over Lazy Lay Acres three years ago from his father, and the land dates back generations. After farming cattle and hogs, Lay's late mother, a Christmas enthusiast, threw out another idea: How about Christmas trees?

  • His father, who died in 2021, learned how to grow them from a farm in nearby Blanton. They opened with a crop of cedars and Virginia pines, and Lay spent his childhood trimming them into that iconic Christmas tree shape.
  • For years, the family resisted importing firs. But as Pasco County's population ballooned, stores like Lowe's and Home Depot moved in, upping the competition.

The latest: These days, Lay and his sister offer pre-cut firs from Michigan along with their rows of Carolina Sapphires (which start at $60), sand pines and red cedars (starting at $40). They take requests from buyers who want a certain size or type of tree.

  • Customers are welcome to cut their tree, but the farm also has workers to help cut and carry trees to the barn, where workers wrap them in netting for the drive home.

Yes, but: What about Lay's house, a log cabin within a stone's throw from the barn? Which tree is fit for the father of Christmas trees?

  • "Don't go there," he says with a laugh, before admitting he doesn't have one. After dealing with them year after year, "I don't want to mess with one."
  • If he does get a hankering to decorate, all he has to do is step outside his door.
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