Penland Tree Farm

The Herald: 12/1/1998

By day, Steve Penland is a training manager for Springs Industries in Chester. By night, he’s in the business of making dreams come true.

It took lost crops, 16-hour days and 32 years of callouses, but Penland figures he’s not only fulfilling his own dreams – he’s selling memories of them to others. Each Christmas for more than a quarter of a century, he and his wife Judy have helped families select, chop and haul Christmas trees home from their 100-acre York farm to build holiday memories.

They have sold trees each of the four Christmases Judy was pregnant, and they watched customers’ children grow and return in subsequent years with their own children.

“Selling trees is so much fun,” said Judy, a former school teacher. “Christmas is a happy time, and we are part of their Christmas.

“One thing I have found out over this entire time is I can’t pick out a Christmas tree for someone. A Christmas tree is in the eye of the beholder.”

Evidence of the toil by all six Penland family members lies in boots neatly stacked by the kitchen door leading to a deck overlooking the farm. Nearby, dozens of pairs of protective gloves fill a laundry basket and ball caps hang from pegs. In recent years, the children’s spouses have been pitching in, too.

This year, they planted 4,000 Christmas trees that will be ready for harvest in the year 2005. Each member of the family prepared soil, sprayed, and individually shaped each evergreens twice on 60 acres devoted to Christmas trees. Pruning trees twice each year to improve the shape is only partially for aesthetic reasons.

“You have to shape the tree to get the limbs thick so they will hold ornaments,” Steve explained. “A tree that is not shaped is not a Christmas tree.”

If luck and the weather holds, they will sell 2,000 to 3,000 trees this season and plant two or three more for each tree harvested. The rest is expertise.

Skill is something Penland, president of the S.C. Christmas Tree Association several times and a state delegate to the national association, admits he did not have when he planted his first Scotch pine back in 1966.

He had developed an affinity for the outdoors growing up in Rock Hill and, after graduating Rock Hill High School in 1962, enrolled at Clemson University to study forestry. He did not earn a degree from Clemson, but returned to Rock Hill a few years later, taking a job at Bowater Inc.

Meanwhile, he had seen a 100-acre farm for lease on Campbell Road. Penland decided to rent the land and try to grow trees.

At first, he was overly ambitious. He planted 32,000 Scotch pines. The area experienced one of its worst droughts in history that year, and the farm had no irrigation.

“We had a 50 percent mortality rate that year,” he recalled. “It took nine years for those 16,000 trees to be harvested.”

Christmas tree growers were a rare breed in South Carolina in the 1960s. Most of the state’s Christmas trees were Fraser firs imported from North Carolina. The Frasers, which require an elevation of at least 6,000 feet to thrive, do not do well in South Carolina.

The state association was founded in 1967. Penland joined and continued to rent the farm. At that point, the association had 13 members, only four of them growers.

When Winthrop University went coed in the early 1970s, Penland returned to school to earn a degree in math. A friend fixed him up on a date with a coed from North Carolina. The Penlands describe it as “a blind date that took.”

Steve took Judy for dates out at the farm. While he worked on trees, she studied.

“I thought it was pretty neat that this guy had a Christmas tree farm,” Judy remembers. “He had a tractor and a shed for it and a bunch of little trees.

“One day he put a knife in my hand, and I started cutting on trees. I guess that’s when he figured I was the one.”

They married in 1970 and lived in a mobile home on the farm. By the mid-1970s, the Penlands were able to begin selling trees from the original plot of Scotch pines and purchased the farm. Then they built their home.

Now, in addition to the Southern Scotch pine (originally known as the Virginia pine), they grow white pines with soft needles, red cedars with a fragrant aroma and Clemson greenspire.

In recent years, the Penlands branched out into Leyland cypresses, taken from cuttings and known for retaining foliage and being non-allergenic. Several years ago they planted their first Carolina sapphires, now 6 to 10 feet tall with delicate blue foliage. Also new is the Deodar cedar, bluish in cast and resembling a fir tree.

Today, about half of the 350,000 Christmas trees sold in South Carolina are grown in the state. When the season is over, the trees will be collected, ground and used for mulch and other environmental projects.

The farm has long since been irrigated, and the Penlands use modern mechanical hedgeclippers. But their first tree knife is framed and hangs on a wall of honor in the living room, right next to a plaque Penland received when he was named S.C. Christmas Tree Association Grower of the Year in 1996.

“We got into it when the business was in its heyday, when there was little competition,” Penland said. “It has sent the kids through college, bought the land and built the house.”

“It started out as a hobby,” Judy added. “Now, it is a passion.”

Tree Farm
Herald – Rock Hill, S.C.
Author: Karen Bair The Herald
Date: Dec 1, 1998
Start Page: 1.c
Section: Lifestyles