It’s a family tradition: Once a year, Steve and Judy Penland corral their eight grandchildren for an early-morning hayride.
Steve Penland steers them down the gravel path and stops to open the gate that separates the family business from the line of 50 cars filled with customers.
Like a parade, he leads a processional of SUVs, sedans and hybrids packed with people united by a common goal: to ring in the holidays with a choose-and-cut Christmas tree and a traditional touch.
“It’s a tremendous time of year to be in our type of business because the Christmas spirit is all around us,” said Judy Penland, who with her husband, Steve, runs Penland Christmas Tree Farm.
But the Penland family is in an industry that’s battling the times: There’s a growing market for well-crafted, no-hassle artificial trees, and consumers are too busy to spend a few hours cutting their own tree.
For many small business owners nationwide, November and December are critical sales months for finishing the year in the black. And some entrepreneurs, like the Penlands, rely on the holidays for nearly their entire annual income.
Penland Christmas Tree Farm in York, S.C. – now as traditional for many families as a Christmas Eve church service – is an example of a seasonal business that’s successfully fighting stacked odds with an experience steeped in tradition.
Customers are given a hand saw and instructions for cutting their own tree. They can choose among hypo-allergenic trees, mint-scented trees and trees that don’t shed needles. The Penland farm boasts of 70 acres of Virginia and white pine, Carolina sapphire, red cedar and Leyland cypress, precut Fraser firs and more.
Couple learns to be creative
When Steve Penland, 68, and Judy, 63, started the farm more than four decades ago, they were newlyweds and the live Christmas tree industry was humming.
Though real trees still outsell artificial trees by a 3 to 1 margin (31 million real trees were sold in 2011 compared to 9.5 million artificial, according to a study by the National Christmas Tree Association), well-crafted artificial trees are seizing a larger share of the holiday market.
During the 1980s and ’90s – “the heyday of the choose-and-cut farms,” Steve says – the Penlands sold 4,000 to 5,000 trees in one season. Now, they average 2,000 to 3,000 trees a year.
The dip in sales encouraged the couple to get creative, to offer more than just an autonomous quest for the perfect tree.
“For a long time, being outside and cutting your own tree was enough, but now you need something else,” Steve Penland said.
So to keep customers coming back, the Penlands started to add features and make improvements.
Now customers sip on free hot chocolate while they traverse the fields, and families go on free hayrides around the farm. Kids roast marshmallows over a bonfire (four for $1), and parents arrange picnics on new tables.
Three years ago, the Penlands also added “Mulch Mountain” for kids to climb – an idea they gleaned from a trade association meeting of tree farmers nationwide. The structure, made from the mulch of tree stumps, is a lesson in recycling, Steve said.
Most recently, they added the Treasure Barn, where guests browse dozens of homemade ornaments, most of which cost $1.
Like all small-business owners, they’ve recovered from mishaps.
The Penlands used to allow customers to come to the farm before the gates officially opened and select, or “tag,” the trees they’d like to cut after Thanksgiving. But when people started removing others’ tags and claiming taken trees, they nixed it.
Another year, they decided to price each tree individually, like many Christmas tree farmers do.
The Penlands cringe when they admit that the meticulous, time-consuming process yielded only $0.12 more per tree.
Farm thrives on community spirit
They weather the evolving industry and retain customers by invoking a sense of family and community.
So Steve and Judy Penland let charity groups run bake sales during business hours. Neighboring churches sell barbecue.
Even pets are welcome. Steve says many customers bring their dogs, some of which don scarves and reindeer antlers, and one woman once brought a raccoon on a leash.
The couple raised their three children in a modest one-story home overlooking the green expanse they manicure daily, and now their children and grandchildren come back every season to help.
Former teenage employees-turned-parents bring their kids. People who moved away and then returned, come to relive their decades-old memories.
Last year, one man approached Steve Penland with a picture of him and his wife holding a baby girl – the first year they came to Penland Christmas Tree Farm.
“He said … ‘That was the first time we came out, and we’ve been coming ever since,’ ” Steve recalls. “ ‘She’s 22 years old now.’
“… Having folks come out year after year after year, cutting their tree and having that Christmas spirit – it’s a tremendous feeling,” Steve says. “I have a lot of folks that say, ‘Don’t shut down. We love coming out here.’ And that makes you feel awful good.”