It has been a pretty good spring here at the mountain Christmas tree farm of E. Marshall and Cindy Stacy.
The deer population is down, allowing the new fir seedlings to grow undisturbed. And recently Stacy, a 41-year-old son of suburban Montgomery County, Montgomery Blair High School Class of 1963, was named Maryland Tree Farmer of the Year.
The honor was bestowed by an extension of the American Forest Institute for his excellence as a forest manager. Stacy is one of about 200 Christmas tree growers in the state and about 10,000 in the country.
The farm, in the Allegheny Mountains in Garrett County, has 128,000 fir, spruce and pine trees, more than three times the number it had in 1970, when the Stacys bought it. Last week Stacy and his crew were busy putting in more, in a barren field that was last planted three years ago.
Deer had eaten the seedlings planted in the field after a severe drought killed grasses on the mountain, forcing the wildlife to seek other food. Stacy said he tried everything to ward off the herds. One year he even hauled cougar dung from the National Zoo to his farm, where it was scattered around the seedlings. The scent scared the deer for about 10 days, until the rain washed it away, he said.
While he's reluctant to do it, Stacy has concluded that the only solution is to kill the deer, each of which can cause upwards of $1,000 in crop damage. "You shoot a couple, the rest get wary," he said.
He once had to shoot 12 deer in one year, but hasn't had to kill any for the past two springs, he says. The state issues him special deer permits, but only after damage has occurred, he said.
Since moving here, the Stacys have carved a life for themselves out of Maryland's last frontier, a vast and rugged land of big sky, tall mountains and few people.
They own 230 acres, 158 of which are planted with Christmas trees. Other trees, which will one day be harvested for timber used in construction, cover much of the rest.
They came here after buying the former potato farm at a bank foreclosure sale. Both are graduates of the University of Maryland, where he studied business and landscaping and she majored in journalism. E. Marshall Stacy formerly was a landscaping contractor in the Washington suburbs and sold Christmas trees as a sideline.
From their perch atop 2,657-foot-high Fort Hill, with its wraparound view of the mountains, the rest of the world seems far away.
Garrett County's 30,000 residents, scattered over 664 square miles, make the county the most sparsely settled in the state. The winters are notoriously harsh. On top of the mountain here, the wind-chill factor has plunged to 100 degrees below zero.
"We designed the house for Alaska," E. Marshall Stacy said.
Social life here is in sharp contrast to their previous existence in Silver Spring and Columbia, Md. Their 10-year-old son's closest playmate lives two miles away; the home of their 7-year-old daughter's best friend is five miles distant.
"You kind of have to import friends," said Cindy Stacy, who works part time as a staff writer at Frostburg State College.
The isolation appeals to her husband, but Cindy Stacy, who is from Adelphi, says she sometimes finds it frustrating. She said that when her husband suggested a move to the mountains of Washington State, she responded, "More remote than we are now? Forget it."
"I have a hunch we're gonna be here" for a while, she says of their mountain. "We're pretty committed to this place."
E. Marshall Stacy's goal for their farm, called Pinetum (an arboretum of pine trees), is to have 165,000 trees under cultivation at once.
Toward that end, he employs two helpers year round and three more in the summer. In the spring, he pays juvenile offenders from a county detention center work-release program to plant and trim trees.
Like the Southern Maryland tobacco farmer and the Chesapeake Bay waterman, the Stacy family has a life with a seasonal rhythm that is set by the weather.
"We sweat the snow in November and, of course, the ice storms are horrible," Cindy Stacy said. "You can't cut and bale the trees. If the temperature is below 25 or 20, they get brittle, like fragile crystal, and will break."
Winter is for working on the equipment indoors and doing taxes. Springtime is for planting the seedlings bought from the Weyerhaeuser timber company in Tacoma, Wash.
To keep the seedlings cool until planting, E. Marshall Stacy shovels the last of the snow drifts into a cold storage garage. After planting, "One inch of rain within seven days . . . makes the difference between 98 and 68 percent survival," he said.
Summer is for shearing, to help preserve the Christmas trees' conical shape. In November, 8- to 13-year-old trees are cut, baled, placed on pallets and taken by truck to the Washington suburbs. It usually takes eight trips.
In a good year, 3,000 trees are harvested, but last year only 1,700 were cut because heavy rains late in the year turned the farm into a swamp and hampered the crews.
Among the customers last Christmas for the Stacys' largest trees were the U.S. Naval Academy, Mobil Oil Corp. and NBC, which needed white pines and Douglas firs for a benefit that it broadcast for Children's Hospital.
The smaller trees, which cost about $30, are sold on lots at the Montgomery Hills Safeway and the Howard County YMCA, between Ellicott City, Md., and Columbia. If the Stacys arrive a day or two later than usual, worried suburban customers start calling Garrett County to find out why, the couple said.
To ensure their own Christmas on the mountain, the Stacys try to sell out and be back here by noon on Dec. 23.
"You have to really enjoy being a tree farmer. We certainly aren't in it for the money," said Cindy Stacy, who noted that "there's one paycheck a year." In 1984, they sold 2,500 trees and had a taxable income of $8,300, her husband said.
Concern about money has been drawing Stacy into the political arena lately. As a member of the timber tax committee of the National Christmas Tree Association, he has traveled to Washington several times this spring to lobby against proposed changes in the tax laws that growers regard as a threat to their livelihoods.
Currently, tree farmers pay a 40 percent capital gains tax on the difference between the value of trees just before they are cut and when they are sold. If the tax rules are changed, profits would be taxed fully as income.
Last week Stacy was busy in an effort to get members of the tree association to contact their senators. It is the fifth time since he began raising trees that the association has had to battle tax changes, he said.
People go into tree farming for reasons sometimes not connected with money, said Stacy, who said he'll never make as much money with trees as he did as a landscaper.
"There are values you can't put a price tag on -- the freedom of doing your own thing, and of working with nature," he said. ". . . You're making some sort of mark on the land that's not a scar."
But of late, he said, "one of our biggest problems" as tree raisers "is the constant threat that the rules are going to be changed by Congress . . . . We're finding that we really can't just sit up on our mountain and do our thing."