Now that Thanksgiving's over and the holiday shopping season has officially begun, Paul Fouche is hoping residents of Fairfax County still enjoy the smell of a freshly cut Christmas tree.
For more than 20 years, the Clifton Christmas Tree Plantation has been the only fresh-cut tree farm in Fairfax County, allowing families the opportunity to select their own perfect tree from among more than 2,500 white and Scotch pine or Fraser Fir trees.
"My family has owned this farm for more than 50 years," said owner Paul Fouche. After selling off his cattle and South African ostriches, Fouche and his family began growing pine trees.
"The first year, we planted 2,500 trees. That year, we had the worst drought in the history of the state," he said. The next year, another 2,500 trees were planted and Virginia experienced the second worst drought in history. Luckily, the third year, 7,500 trees were planted and plentiful rains allowed for the farm literally to take root.
"We've been fairly busy this weekend," said Fouche, two days after Thanksgiving on a sunny Saturday morning. "A lot of people have their family in town now, so they'll come out and set up their homes for the holidays."
In a few weeks, the Christmas Shop on the farm will open, allowing customers to enjoy cider and candy canes while picking out freshly made wreaths and other green decorations for the holidays, he said.
"We don't do hay rides because of all the insurance restrictions, but we have lots of blow-ups for the kids," Fouche said.
FOR THE PAST two seasons, Santa has been on hand to welcome children of all ages and provide an extra opportunity to share their Christmas wishes.
"It's fun to dress up as Santa," said Chuck Davis, who has played the role for two of the four years he's worked at the Clifton Christmas Tree Plantation. "When it's raining or snowing out, I'm the only one who isn't freezing because this suit is so warm."
Families who visit the farm like the opportunity to select their own tree, Davis said, but it's the "atmosphere and the people who work here" that bring the families back year after year.
"I think people like to be able to walk into a field and pick their own tree. Our lot stays full most of the time," said Davis, who has had to stand in the middle of Henderson Road in Clifton to direct traffic during especially busy afternoons.
Frank Keyser has been spending his spare time at the farm for the past 20 years, a friend of one of Fouche's sons who brought him in to volunteer one day after high school.
"When this first started, there were just a few trees in the shed that people could buy," said Keyser, standing in front of a wooden platform where trees are netted before being secured to the roof of an awaiting family vehicle.
Customers are given a small hand saw and sent into the field to select their perfect tree. "I think they like to get out of the city and spend some time out in the country," Keyser said. "It reminds them of their childhood."
Sometimes, however, a customer's eyes can be bigger than their cars or their homes.
"It's funny when people bring in a little car and want us to put their tree in the trunk," Keyser laughed. He's had to warn customers that trees can appear to "grow" when they arrive home, suddenly a 7 foot tall tree seems much bigger in a house or an apartment with a low ceiling.
When Christmas Eve finally rolls around, "I never want to see another tree again," he admitted, knowing full well he'll be back for another season the following November.
IN THE WEEK before Thanksgiving, Fouche said some members of the military who were home and wanted to have Christmas with their families before being deployed visited the farm.
"We knew we were going to give them some kind of discount, but I ended up just giving them their trees," he said. "It was the right thing to do."
Other early customers have been local office managers and business owners who wanted to have their holiday decorations in place after Thanksgiving.
"The tallest tree we have went to the Federal Reserve," Fouche said. "The big trees come in early from a farm in Southern Virginia where the conditions allow the trees to grow taller faster."
Running a 60-acre tree farm is something Fouche does "just for smiles," he said. "I have an appraisal business and I manage the day-to-day business of running some apartments and office buildings my father owns. This is just for fun," he said.
Hands enclosed in mittens, the Enke family of Manassas drove up to select their Christmas tree together.
"We've been coming here for at least the past 10 years," said Cindy Enke, who was looking at a pre-cut tree with her husband Dave and their children. "It's very convenient for us to come here to get our tree."
They have learned their lesson when it comes to tree shopping, she said. "We know now to look at the trunk of the tree, not just the height," she said, after trees that looked perfectly fine in the field have morphed into uneven Leaning Tower of Pisa-esque trees at home.
"Picking out a tree from a mall parking lot just isn't the same as picking your own," Enke said.
Kevin Widmann of Burke agreed.
"It's just better to get a real tree, it smells better," he said, adding that the best time to buy a fresh tree is right after Thanksgiving to ensure that the tree keeps its needles through Christmas.
He was looking for a "skinnier" tree this year because a new couch in his home has left only a small corner open for a tree.
"It's just so much nicer to have a real tree," he said. "Plus, I wouldn't go near the malls this weekend, they're crowded."