Published 12:00 am Monday, December 2, 2013

SALISBURY — Saw in hand, 7-year-old Tate Mack led his family on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree Sunday at Pinetop Farm on Majolica Road.
The Macks — parents Kristin and Todd, Tate and little sisters Abby Clare and Reese — drive from their home in Huntersville to Pinetop nearly every December to choose a tree, cut it down and make holiday memories.
“It’s fun,” said Tate, who resisted the urge to tear into a free candy cane because he’s saving it for Santa.
The family climbed onto a hayride pulled by a tractor for the short journey to 15 acres of Scotch pine, white pine, blue ice and Leyland cypress.
Pinetop, one of the only cut-your-own tree farms in the area, sells trees for $5.50 per foot, or about $40 for a 7-foot tree. That’s a bargain compared to the $100 the Macks said they would pay for a similarly sized pre-cut tree in Huntersville.
The Macks jumped off the trailer and quickly spotted several candidates, then walked back and forth, considering each tree’s attributes.
“This is what we do every year,” Todd said. “Follow mom around until she finds the one she wants.”
This time, Todd’s pick won. With help from Tate, Todd went to work on the trunk of the nearly 11-foot-tall Scotch pine, straight as an arrow with good fullness and only a small bare spot near the bottom, easily concealed by turning it to the wall.
Kristin grew up in Massachusetts, where her family cut their own Christmas tree every year.
“It took a lot longer, because there were a lot more opinionated people,” she said.
Todd always had a pre-cut tree growing up but said he likes the choose-and-cut tradition.
“The kids look forward to it,” he said.
Owner Bryce Kepley grew up on the property long before he planted the first Christmas tree in 1971 and dubbed the acreage Pinetop Farm. Living in Virginia for 35 years and working as a NASA electrical engineer and operations manager for a wind tunnel, Kepley grew trees in Rowan County as a hobby and sold them wholesale.
“The tree farm was my vacation,” he said. “A lot of people went away for vacation, but I would come right here.”
A fire burned about 10,000 trees in 1980, nearly destroying the entire farm. Kepley spent four years rebuilding the crop, and when he reopened in 1984, he switched from wholesale to retail and began offering the choose-and-cut experience.
Pinetop has been open every year since, except in 2012 when Kepley underwent quadruple bypass surgery. His repeat customers — and there are many — stopped by Sunday to say they had missed him and to check on his health.
“Take care of yourself,” one man said. “We want to see you again next year.”
“Now that’s the kind of customer I like,” Kepley said.
Pinetop sells between 200 and 300 trees a year, and this weekend marked one of the best they’ve had, Kepley said. The whole family pitches in, with grandson Mark Ryan welcoming customers and ringing up sales and wife Naomi Kepley making wreaths as quickly as she can to keep up with demand.
She uses branches from the Fraser firs that Pinetop brings in to sell as pre-cut Christmas trees. She has a wreath-making station set up in her kitchen and stands at a special table built by her husband.
“I’m a little bit picky,” Naomi said as she sorted through clippings, her hands sticky with sap.
Kepley replants hundreds of trees most years but said he has trouble finding the correct seedlings for Scotch pine. He said he has several mature trees with traits he likes and hopes to capture their seeds. Because Scotch pine tend to grow crooked with a thick trunk, Kepley said he would choose seeds from his straightest trees with the most slender trunks.
Kepley credited Darrell Blackwelder, extension director with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County, for helping him with both Christmas trees and blueberries, which the farm sells in the summer.
“I’ve gained a lot of knowledge from him,” Kepley said.
The blueberries started as an experiment when Kepley planted two rows. Ten years later, he now has two acres and offers pick-you-own starting in mid-July.
The Macks, experts by now in cutting their own Christmas tree, had the Scotch pine down within minutes. The entire family helped haul the tree to the waiting tractor.
Back at the barn, employees Bryan Ketchie and Caleb Link placed the tree in a mechanical shaker to remove dead needles. The West Rowan High School sophomores measured the tree, baled it and placed it on top of the Macks’ van.
By the time the Macks paid $60 and pulled out, at least four more groups were waiting for a hayride to choose and cut their own trees.
Kepley’s cousin Tom Link was at the tractor wheel, ready to lead more families to make their Christmas memories.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.