Marshall Stacy bounces his four-wheel-drive Subaru over what passes for roads on his 200-acre Christmas tree plantation in Maryland's far-western Garrett County and stops next to a field of evergreens plunging down the side of a steep hill. "Come on," he says, "I want you to see this." His face lights up like . . . well, like a Christmas tree, what else?
And suddenly there it is, looming above all the rest, the perfect tree: a Douglas fir, about 25 feet tall, with full, upright branches, a graceful, tapering shape, a shimmering blue-green color, a tree fit for the White House.
And that's just what it is. "Yeah, we call it "The President's Tree,'" Stacy says. "Every year the National Christmas Tree Association sponsors a contest and the winner gets to furnish the tree for the White House. This would certainly be the perfect one."
But, Stacy laughs, he doesn't want to win. He doesn't want to cut down The President's Tree yet -- first he wants to clone it. He and Dr. Frank Gouin of the Maryland Agricultural Extension Service are trying to root cuttings from this particular Douglas fir to determine the right conditions under which they could one day produce whole fields of such perfect trees. So far only 7 percent of the cuttings have rooted.
Stacy warms to his subject quickly. He has an almost missionary zeal about Christmas trees. Walking up and down the length of the farm, he pauses occasionally to explain the intricacies of rock shelves and soil tests, plowpans and drainage, and to examine closely a particular tree. He seems to know every inch of this ground, every tree in the fields by heart.
He is gearing up for the big push, the days of reckoning. In early November he selcts 3,000 to 3,500 trees which, having nurtured them for eight to 12 years, he will cut down and sell to decorate living rooms all over the Washington area. "If it all goes well, I have only myself to thank," he says, "and if it doesn't, well, I can kick myself in the butt."
My mother always said I was born in the wrong century," Stacy says, pushing open the window and aiming his .30-06 rifle. At 6-foot-2, dressed in jeans and cowboy boots (though, for the moment, without the Stetson he often wears), with his weathered face and neatly trimmed beard, he could be a character in his favorite movie, James Michener's "Centennial" -- maybe even his favorite character, Pascanel, the French trader.
He fits the part -- the pioneer protecting his homestead, shooting from the window of his log cabin at marauding Indians. And something is threatening Marshall Stacy's homestead.
But it isn't Indians. It's a groundhog.
"Got him," Stacy says, grinning. Groundhogs eat plants, tear up the ground.
But they are among the lesser threats to Stacy's 68,000 Christmas trees and to his way of life. In 1973 Stacy sued the Virginia Electric Power Co. for damages caused by sulfuric acid pollution from a coal-burning West Virginia plant, and though he was awarded $25,000, it covered, he says, "only a fraction" of the loss. In 1979 deer destroyed $42,000 worth of trees. "Then there's weather, and its by-product, cabin fever. The winters here bring an average of 10 feet of snow, winters when the only hope of transportation may be a snowmobile. And, of course, there's the money -- rising cost of fuel and equipment, the special problems of getting but one paycheck a year, in December, when the Christmas trees are sold.Though Stacy grossed more than $40,000 last year, most of that was plowed right back into the farm. Last spring he had to buy a new tractor: "There was very little change from a $20,000 bill." His wife, Cindy, operates the household for a family of four on a budget of only $4,800 a year.
But Marshall Stacy has done what most of us, at one time or another, have thought of doing. He's left the city for the country, he lives off the land -- and he's his own boss. Time was when most Americans lived on farms or in small towns and longed for the romance of the city; now most Americans live in cities and long for the romance of the country. Moreover, there's something wonderfully romantic about the idea of growing Christmas trees -- the stuff of children's dreams, so beautiful and perfect, raised only to give happiness.
Christmas trees -- real, live ones -- stand for the way things used to be, before increasingly obnoxious, expensive and destructible toys began appearing on TV the day after Labor Day, before shopping centers began hauling out the plastic decorations in early October.
Still, this isn't the 19th century, and Stacy's farm isn't the Little House on the Prairie.In the 20th century, as the only full-time Christmas tree grower in Maryland, Marshall Stacy must be at least all of the following: farmer, architect, accountant, carpenter, scientist, mechanic, engineer, marketing director and lobbyist.
It is morning at Pinetum (Pi-NEE-tum), the name the Stacys have given their farm, a name which Webster's defines as "an arboretum or plantation of pine trees." Cindy Stacy, an attractive, young-looking woman in her early 30s, has been up since 7, making breakfast, getting 5-year-old Chester (a.k.a. (Bear") off to kindergarten, dressing 2-year-old Dawn. Chester rides to school with a neighbor who works in Oakland, the county seat; otherwise, he would have to catch a school but at 7, a long day for a 5-year-old who arrives back home by bus at 4.
There are apples cooking on the stove in the large, modern kitchen -- Cindy is making applesauce from the fruit of the farm's apple trees -- and a package of venison is thawing on the counter. It's deer burger night.
On a $4,800 budget, the homemade applesauce, the venison from deer Marshall killed on the farm, and her small vegetable garden are ways of cutting corners. "I make just about everything from scratch. I don't buy many prepared or frozen foods," she says. She doesn't make the family's clothes, but says she intends to sew more; some of Chester's and Dawn's clothes are passed on from cousins and friends. Because of distances, she shops by catalogue. She doesn't buy on credit.
Cindy pays for food, clothing, cleaning and incidentals on her budget -- a little less than $100 a month from her part-time job as Garrett County correspondent for The Cumberland Evening Times. "If it weren't for that, there's no way we could make it," she says.
When you get one paycheck a year, you plan with a vengeance, allow a bit for extras, for unpredictable expenses, and you never keep up with inflation. "Your earnings are based on last year's prices," Marshall says, "but the next year, when you're living off those earnings, prices are going up.
A deliveryman from United Parcel Service has just arrived with a package from Marshall.It's the transmission from the small Kubota tractor. He had removed it and taken it to Baltimore for repair.
"See that?", he says, holding up the bill. It's $189.98. "Two gears and they didn't even have to remove the transmission themselves." He shakes his head.
Inflation has hurt. Credit is tight and the cost of equipment is unspeakable. Stacy's flatbed truck cost $13,000 in 1974; he says it would be $25,000 today. In addition to work on the farm, he uses the truck to haul trees to market -- he retails his own trees on two lots in the Washington area, one at the Columbia, Md., YMCA and one at the Montgomery Hills Safeway in Silver Spring. He has to make the trip, about 3 1/2 hours each way, 10 to 12 times. "I recently saw the kind of truck I want," he says. "It costs $49,000." Herbicide, necessary to keep weeds from choking the trees, is now $72 a gallon; Stacy just brought $2,000 worth, about a two-year supply. Seedlings for the several varieties of trees Stacy grows -- Douglas fir, Scotch pine, white pine, red pine and Austrian pine -- cost $85 to $110 per 1,000 at a commercial nursery; more than half of those would be useless because they are undersized.
Stacy says that the increase in his retail prices "hasn't quite equaled the increase in inflation" in the 13 years he has been selling trees (he bought trees from a wholesaler and retailed them before he bought Pinetum in 1970), but his prices were in keeping with other lots in the area. Although, he says, "people forget what they paid for their tree last year -- they always think they paid $5," he sold all of his trees in 1979. The average price was $19, though some were as high as $35 and some as low as $8.
When Stacy bought the farm, he was in the landscape contracting business in Columbia and had planned to raise Christmas trees part time, commuting between the two places. But, he says, "I saw how much time it took, and I saw the demand for top quality trees increasing each year . . . I don't think there will ever be too many good trees available."
The week after Christmas Stacy begins to figure his budget for the coming year. After he determines what he will need to operate the farm and the household in the first six months of the year, the remainder of the money from the tree sales is put in a six-month savings account to be drawn out in June when he must pay the workers he hires to help with shearing (shaping the trees with a large machete-like knife, done every summer). Except for shearing and harvesting, Stacy manages to work the farm with one full-time helper, a 20-year-old local named Randy Harold; for the jobs that call for extra help, he uses boys from the nearby Juvenile Services Camp No. 4, a staterun forestry camp for delinquent boys, who are allowed to earn not more than $1.25 an hour.
One of the keys to success in operating a Christmas tree farm, perhaps any farm, is taxes: "Actually, I have to know more about taxes than I do trees," Stacy says. Although a majority of his earnings goes right back into operational expenses, a good portion -- he won't discuss specifics -- is tax-deductible. "In figuring your taxes on a business like this, you have to be consistent and you have to have a reason for what you do," Stacy says. "You have to play by the rules. I certainly don't want to get into an audit hassle -- I'm not going to pay any more than I absolutely have to, but I will pay what I owe."
As Maryland director of the National Christmas Tree Association, he has lobbied Congress to forestall a movement to do away with capital gains treatment for timber. "It's popular with blue-collar workers to talk about doing away with capital gains," he says, "but it sure would hurt a small business like mine."
Charles Ingalls built his little house on the prairie himself out of necessity, but Marshall Stacy built his big house on the hilltop not only to cut costs, but because, "I'm a perfectionist, and I like to see things done right."
It is an enviable house: a 2,975-square-foot trilevel cedar-sided contemporary, complete with a 16-foot ceiling in the living room, a mammoth stone fireplace, pine floors varnished to a glassy sheen and large expanses of glass that offers an impressive view of fields of evergreens, the changing seasons of the Savage River State Forest and beyond them the Allegheny mountains of West Virginia and Maryland.
But there is something here even more enviable to a Washingtonian. In the city's soaring real estate market, this house would be priced in the $200,000 bracket; because Stacy built it himself, with help from family members, an electrician and a stonemason, labor costs were kept to a minimum while approximately $65,000 was invested in materials.
Marshall dug the foundation in the early summer of 1976 and by late autumn the basement recreation room, kitchen, dining room, living room and a sleeping/office loft were completed (the upper bedroom level was built after Dawn was born in 1978). The family moved in just in time for winter.
Remember the heavy snows in Washington in the winter of 1976-77? It was much worse in Garrett County, an area sometimes called "America's Little Switzerland." The house is well protected from the weather, with the same insulation as many houses in Alaska -- an insulation factor of R-26 in the walls and R-38 in the ceiling. It was one of the first houses in the country to incorporate 2-by-6 studding and is painted black to absorb solar heat. The furnace uses only 600 gallons of oil a year.
Still, that first winter was a rude introduction to life in the country. "When we first moved in," Cindy says, "only the basement was heated. We kept getting snowed in and heavy snows often knock down the power lines here."
After spending most of the month of December selling trees in Washington, the family started home the day after Christmas. Cindy and Chester, then 18 months old, were in the car; Marshall was following behind in the truck. They were caught in one of the season's worst storms. By the time they got to the crossroads grocery store about two miles from their home, the road had become impassable. "Marshall had to walk in and come back for us in the snowmobile. We left everything in the car but a carton of milk, a bottle of Canadian Club and the baby," Cindy laughs.
Listening to Cindy, one senses the adjustment to life in Garrett County may have been a little more difficult for her than for Marshall. Both grew up in the Washington area -- Marshall in Silver Spring, Cindy in Adelphi and College Park -- and, she says, "I just always assumed I'd spend my life in the suburbs."
The isolation in Garrett County is one of distances -- 18 miles to the supermarket in Oakland -- and of weather, the harsh winters that enforce separation. It is also the isolation of being an outsider in a county of insiders: if you look in the county telephone book, you see the same last names -- Yoder, for example -- column after column.
"This place doesn't take too easily to newcomers," Cindy says, "but fortunately there are more and more couples from the city moving in." They are drawn by clean air and beautiful scenery, the prospect of raising a family in a small town, and nearby recreational facilities -- winter sports at nearby Wisp ski area, summer sports at Deep Creek Lake. Friends of Marshall's and Cindy's from University of Maryland days, Norma and Jack Rickman, had preceded the Stacys to Garrett County for just those reasons.
"I don't know what I would have done without Norma," Cindy says. She laughs about the time Norma received a mimeographed flier from a mail-order house asking: "Are you tired of fighting the crowds in busy downtown Swanton?" Swanton is the tiny community where the Stacys get their mail; it consists of a post office, church, community center and store.
A journalism major at the University of Maryland, Cindy worked after college in public relations for Columbia developer James Rouse, but quit when Chester was born in 1975. "Sometimes I miss it," she says. But she is adamantly opposed to working full-time again until her children are older.
On her bulletin board, Cindy has pinned a "My Turn" column from Newsweek magazine by Washington's WRC-TV station manager Ann Berk which talks about the fact that working wives and mothers have two jobs to do, that something inevitably has to suffer, that maybe they've bitten off too much.
It is, Cindy says, a trade-off, but the good life in the country wins out over the advantages of life in the city. The Stacys ski at Wisp and hope to buy their own sailboat soon.
"Of course you get lonely sometimes," she says. "I remember one winter -- there wasn't snow on the ground yet -- a Jehovah's Witness came to the door with his little boy. I think he was a little startled when we rushed out to listen to him, we were so glad to see an unfamiliar face!" But, she adds adamantly, "We really have a very good life. Whenever I get a little fidgety here, I think: I could be fighting the Washington traffic!"
Sometimes Stacy's work seems to an outsider unbearably tedious. Like today. He has spent all afternoon driving his truck slowly up and down a plowed field, while six boys from the Juvenile Services heave stumps into the back of the truck -- part of the process of readying the field, from which trees were harvested last year, for replanting in the spring.
Stacy likes what he does so much, takes so much pleasure in the results, that he doesn't even mind what might seem monotonous. "I always knew I seem monotonous. "I always knew I wanted to work outdoors," he says, "but I chose Christmas trees because it's something I can control from top to bottom. It all depends on me."
For much the same reasons Stacy retails most of his own trees -- about one-fourth of his crop are sold wholesale to the Optimist Club in Salisbury, Md. "I can make the same amount of money on fewer trees," he says."Besides," he adds with a shrug of self-awareness, "that way I can control everything."
This is the time of year when that control pays off, the grueling days of November and December, beginning with the selection of trees to be harvested, the process of pricing and tagging them, and then the harvesting itself. The trees are put through a baler (Stacy owns two, one of which he built himself), which wraps them in Dupont Vexar nylon netting to protect them. For shipping they are stacked in pallets, a container which Stacy himself designed to hold about 45 trees. Finally, there are the trips back and forth to the lots in Columbia and Silver Spring hauling the trees and the long days and nights he will spend there (beginning next Saturday). "I don't get a whole lot of sleep," he says.
He has help, of course, primarily family members and a few high school and college students, some of whom have worked for Stacy for several years, and Marshall's mother will stay with Chester and Dawn so that Cindy can spend part of the month working on the lot in Columbia. But, typically, Stacy spends his days going back and forth between the lots, keeping a sharp eye on things.
Despite the long hours, Stacy is looking forward to it. "People are basically good, you know. We don't really have too many trees stolen -- before we built the house here, we had more stolen from the farm than we do from the lots." He thinks about it for a moment. "And I encourage the people that work for me to be happy, not to forget what Christmas is really about," he says. "We don't sell Xmas trees -- we sell Christmas trees."
One thing he wants people to understand is that Christmas tree farmers are not "raping the environment"; for every tree he harvests, he plants two or three seedlings. Among the clippings the Stacys have saved is a cartoon sent to them by a friend. It's a drawing of a bedraggled man standing on a Christmas tree lot, saying to an irate-looking woman: "No, lady, I'm not an environmental rapist. I'm an electronics engineer out of a job."
When Stacy talks about it he laughs, but it's something he cares about. "We Christmas tree farmers consider ourselves pioneers," he says, "and we want people to understand what we do. Most people think the trees they see on the lot just grew that way by accident out in the woods somewhere."
Everything has its price, Marshall Stacy says, even Pinetum. He might consider selling out for half a million, "if they'd let me harvest the trees here for at least four or five more years."
Sometimes he thinks about moving on, moving west. Montana maybe, or Idaho. "Sometimes," he muses, "I think rougher mountains might be nice, a little more hardship." He laughs.
He and Chester are sitting at the kitchen counter, eating ice cream, mint chocolate chip. "Maybe I'm doing it for him, anyway," he says, pointing at his son.
There's a poster, a Norman Rockwell-type scene of several generations of a family planting a tree, that hangs by the back stairs. It says something similar: "The trees we plant extend our reach and influence beyond a single life span. By growing trees, we enrich the earth and touch the lives of the next generation."
Chester doesn't understand what his father means.
"What I mean, Bear, is that maybe someday this farm will be yours," Stacy says. "Someday you'll be a man, and you'll have a little boy of your own, and you'll look at some of the trees here and you'll say, 'My daddy planted those trees and I helped him.'"
"Oh," Chester says. He thinks about it a minute, and frowns, not certain of the implications, of what will happen between now and then. "But Dad," he asks, "don't parents have to wait to die until their children grow up?"
"Yes, son, they do," Stacy says quietly, raising his eyebrows slightly at Cindy. It's a difficult thing to explain to a 5-year-old, but Marshall Stacy plans, he says, to be around for a long time. Here, among his Christmas trees.