Harvesting Holiday Traditions
For Dan Raulston, farming runs in the family. So, when he left a 30+-year career in the insurance industry to open a Christmas tree farm, it was no real surprise.
By Christina Cannon
Raulston, whose family owned a farm near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, spent his college years selling wholesale Christmas trees off of his family’s property for extra cash.
Fast-forward to the early ’90s, and Raulston had acquired a different property that would later become home to Raulston Acres Christmas Tree Farm.
Dan & Karen Raulston
“I had learned over the years that I enjoyed being my own boss,” explains Raulston. “I started a beef cattle operation on our farm in the early ’90s and spent years running that while working a full-time job managing an insurance agency. When prices for cattle started going down and prices for fuel and fertilizer started going up, I began looking for other things to do on the farm for income.”
After visiting several tree farms, Raulston, alongside his wife Karen, decided to take the plunge. The cattle operation became less of a mainstay in the Raulstons’ lives, and Raulston Acres first opened to the public selling pre-cut trees in 2009. Three years later, the family was all-in, and the property had been transformed into a ‘choose and cut’ farm, which now offers Murray Cypress, Blue Ice Cypress, Virginia Pine, and Frasier Fir trees to choose from.
“Of course, there was a learning curve. There is a lot to learn about starting and operating a tree farm that most people don’t know,” says Raulston. “As our opening day approached, things got really busy. Even though we learned a lot from watching other farms, we also learned a lot on the fly.”
In the early days, Raulston Acres’ employees consisted of family and friends who were willing to put in some long hours and a lot of hard work.
“I’ve heard people say before that I’ve ‘retired to the farm,’ but that’s not exactly the case. Running a tree farm is hard work for five or six days a week for most of the year,” says Raulston.
At the beginning of the year is when planting begins. April or May brings the fertilizing of all the trees, and the summer and early fall months are spent doing weed control and tediously mowing around the trees – no easy feat when you have 5,800 of them.
The summer months are also when Raulston and his crew begin trimming and shaping trees into their Christmas tree outline. Spraying for unwanted fungus and pests is done from May to October, and once fall finally arrives, it’s time to get ready for opening day. Raulston typically spends the next couple of months working on the parking lot and organizing the sales barn, gift shop, and concession area, not to mention taking inventory and ramping up advertising.
Although there’s no question maintaining the farm is a lot of work, Raulston wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Of course, the farm is designed to provide some income, but I get the most joy out of seeing families take a tree that was grown here and make it a part of their Christmas tradition,” says Raulston. “Several families have sent me photos of one of our trees in their home and have told me how much they enjoy visiting the farm. That’s what keeps me motivated.”
Despite the memories Raulston Acres helps create, running the business isn’t without its challenges. Time management, employee scheduling, and scaling the business model are some of Raulston’s top trials.
“People don’t always think of it that way, but farming is very much a business, and in business, you have to be constantly moving. If you are not growing, you’re backing up,” explains Raulston. “I would like to see us continue our growth so long as we can stay with our core values of growing quality trees and providing opportunities for special Christmas memories. Maybe our children or grandchildren will want to continue the business later. Who knows? For now, we are having fun.” CS