There are approximately 5 acres of trees at Neely Farms

By Scott Mims

Don’t say it’s just a tree. For many families, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without gathering around a tree to exchange gifts and celebrate what Christmas means to them.

To the owners of Neely Farms, Michael and Ginger Duncan and family, buying a real Christmas tree is something special. It’s about taking the whole family and finding that one perfect tree, cutting it down and experiencing a time-tested holiday tradition together.

But how do you go about finding that perfect tree? Just what exactly do you look for?

For starters, Michael Duncan recommends the Virginia Pine.

“To me, I think they look like they’re old fashioned. They have thick limbs to hold up ornaments, and they’re just thick,” Duncan says.

Neely Farms is a local Christmas tree farm in Thorsby. The business was started in 2004 by Michael and Ginger Duncan and is family-owned and operated.

Taper, thickness and height are three things to consider when shopping for a Christmas tree. First, the taper gives the tree its traditional look. A thick, sturdy tree is not only healthy but can sustain the weight of decorations. Finally, you don’t want to pick a tree that’s too tall for your home.

Aside from those basics, much of it is personal preference, Duncan said. Some customers don’t want the typical, uniform Christmas tree but something that looks more natural. In addition to the Virginia Pine, there’s the North Carolina Fur and the Leyland Cypress.

It’s important to know how to care for your natural Christmas tree. To keep it simple, there are five basic rules to remember:

1) Cover your tree during transport to prevent wind burn.

2) Store your tree upright with the stem in water until the tree is ready to stand.

3) Cut off 1 to 2 inches of the stem before mounting the tree in its stand.

4) Add water daily.

5) Keep your tree away from heat.

The Duncans emphasized the second rule above all others.

“The biggest thing is water, water, water,” Ginger said. “You will need a gallon or two per day at the beginning.”

You might be wondering how the Duncans got started in the Christmas tree farming business. The name Neely Farms comes from Ginger’s maiden name, and the farm is owned by her father, Chesley Neely. It is located off County Road 50 behind Thorsby High School (just follow the signs).

The inspiration came during a visit with relatives in 2003 in Baldwin County, Alabama, which introduced them to a friend of the family, George Fontaine, a Christmas tree grower.

“Ginger got all excited about those kids and Christmas trees,” her father recalled.

The following winter, in 2004, Michael and Ginger went out on a limb and decided they would try it for themselves. They would discover that it takes three to four years to grow a 6- to 7-foot tree, and trees must be trimmed about three times a year from April to October in order to maintain their shape. Also, several hundred new trees must be planted each year to maintain and expand the business.

“It’s not just a Christmas thing; it’s a year-round thing,” said Ginger, admitting that they didn’t realize how much work the farm would require.

Ironically, it was family that inspired the farm, and it takes the whole family to run it. The couple is assisted by father, Chesley Neely; brother, Carl Neely and his wife, Lacey; sons, Ethan and Chad; and nephew, Calvin.

“It strictly has to be a family affair,” Chesley Neely said. “When it comes down to selling, it takes everyone.”

Family members help shake, drill, bail and load the trees for customers. They also prepare food and complimentary drinks to share with customers and their families. It’s all about making the experience special and memorable.

“Just come on with the family, and let the kids run around and just enjoy being here,” Ginger says. “We have kids’ coloring books, and we serve hot chocolate, spiced tea and coffee. We set up a heater.”

In the barn is a gift shop with handmade Christmas ornaments, such as Santas and angels made from dried okra.

No matter how you celebrate Christmas, you are sure to leave Neely Farms with a renewed sense of tradition —and a few new holiday memories.

“We like to see smiles and people leaving happy,” Michael said.