Shearing from the heart: Christmas tree farmer contemplates retirement

gmartin@islandpacket.comDecember 9, 2011 

Longtime Christmas tree farmer Wes Cooler on his lot in Okatie Friday afternoon. At 61, Cooler says he'll soon be unable to meet the physical demands of his job. The farm that's been in Cooler's family for generations is up for sale.

JONATHAN DYER, THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

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Wes Cooler stands with his hands on his hips and looks appraisingly at his Christmas tree farm in Okatie, his sap-smudged shirt stretched tightly across his chest.

He wears the same close-cropped haircut he did in his 23 years of Army service. Years of farming have helped him maintain a soldier's physique, and his voice still booms like a drill sergeant's.

"My daddy taught me a lot of the tricks of the trade in this business." He lifts a hand and sweeps it across the pine-studded horizon, adding, "This land's been in my family for 150 years."

Then, his voice softens, almost imperceptibly.

"But now I'm sort of running into a dead end."

'A LEAP OF FAITH'

Cooler's farm is busy with visitors in the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He says business is up about 15 percent this year over 2009 and 2010. But for the rest of the year, his only company at the farm are his trees and his tools.

His labor begins each year when he tills the land, often turning up arrowheads and pottery fragments, remnants of the American Indians who lived along the banks of the Okatie River.

Then comes the planting in tidy rows of Leyland and Arizona cypress and seedlings of Virginia pine. Nurturing them is especially difficult given the area's warm climate and low elevation.

"Growing Christmas trees on the coast requires you to make a leap of faith," Cooler says. "There's a lot we have to deal with. Sometimes we rely on sleight of hand."

It's impossible, for example, to grow Fraser firs here. Each fall, Cooler and longtime friend Milledge Morris -- who operates the Family Tree Christmas Tree Farm on Lady's Island -- drive to North Carolina to acquire some of the popular Frasers.

He shears his existing stock into conical shapes -- "removing everything that's not a Christmas tree," he says -- four times each summer and into the fall.

"Each and every one is slightly different, and I have to change my approach to each tree," Cooler said. "I can't just do it with a cookie cutter.

"It makes it interesting."

Though he never acquired formal training, Cooler evinces a firm grasp of the botanical principles that influence each year's crop.

He's quick to point out how underground deposits of oyster shells affect the soil's pH level and talks at length about how a lower soil temperature limits the microbial colonies that can stunt a tree's development.

The land takes its toll on trees and men alike.

At 61, Cooler says he'll soon be unable to meet the physical demands of his job. The farm that's been in his family for generations is up for sale.

'WHAT I'M HERE FOR'

With his son deployed in Afghanistan with the Army, Cooler says he doesn't have anyone to replace him when he retires.

A pit bull named Bunny keeps him company at the farm.

So does his daughter Joann. "She's not going to be a Christmas tree farmer, but she loves making wreaths," he says proudly.

"It'll be a sad day when I finally sell," he says, looking out again over his 13 acres.

But he's soon snapped out of his reverie by Hilton Head Island resident Cindy Tuttle, who asks him to cut down a Virginia pine she's selected.

"That's what I'm here for," he says with a smile, grabbing a saw and following her across the farm, disappearing into the trees.

Minutes later, Tuttle reemerges, raising her small tree like a trophy.

"Isn't it just precious?" she asks, beaming like a child on Christmas morning.

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twiter.com/LowCoBiz.

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