Paws wet from snow, Rip paced the cold concrete sniffing the line of Christmas trees kept dry in the snow-covered barn.
The Brittany dog elsewhere patrolled the property as flakes fell among the spruce and firs, cedars and cypress — but Rip was welcoming visitors, not shooing them away, on Friday as the greeter of the Kinsey Family Farm.
The 50-acre farm in the northeast corner of Forsyth County — despite its Gainesville address — sandwiched between Hall and Dawson counties is one of North Georgia’s most popular sources of living Christmas trees, selling thousands of trees between the few days at the end of November and Dec. 20.
But that’s not what it was supposed to be. The property started out as a livestock farm by a Vermont veterinarian and his wife, Jim and Liz Kinsey, in 1981. The couple came to North Georgia seeking greener pastures during Vermont’s sluggish economy.
“I was just a little boy at the time, so essentially this is my home; it’s where I grew up,” said Andy Kinsey, son of Jim and Liz and second-generation farmer on Jot Em Down Road, in the office he shares with his brother, Kelly on the farm.
The brothers and their families now run the operation: a bustling attraction that does its peak business around Christmas but which is busy year-round.
In the spring, the farm’s nursery picks up with gardeners; in the fall, the farm is busy with pumpkin sales and hayrides. The summer is their slowest season for foot traffic, but it’s some of the hardest work of the year tending to groves of Christmas trees and caring for the rest of the farm.
And the first weekend after Thanksgiving, families begin rolling in to pick out their Christmas tree.
One of those families is Jennifer and Randy Miller, Dahlonega residents who were in Gainesville on Friday and decided to stop in for their Christmas tree.
“I’ve always loved the smell of a fresh tree,” Jennifer Miller said. “A lot of people use candles that smell like real pine trees to get that feel.”
Miller has had a live tree for about 40 years and grew up with them in her home. In the past, she’s had a noble fir — a more sparse tree that reminds her of the humble-but-charming Charlie Brown tree. Instead, she went home on Friday with a North Carolina fraser fir.
The Christmas season is when the Kinsey farm gets rolling. They employ a seasonal workforce of 50 people, mostly teens and college students, and serve thousands of families looking for trees, wreaths and a way to get outdoors.
They’d maybe sell 100 trees a year and pick up a little spending money for Christmas, the family thought. The first trees were planted in 2002 and were ready for harvest four years later.
“The first year it started out very slowly, but nobody knows who you are,” Kinsey said. “… I would say by our third or fourth year selling trees, we had kind of a small fanbase and we were starting to get some notoriety. And by our 10-year anniversary, the place was rocking.”
Now, the farm moves through about 4,000 Christmas trees in less than a month.
They import species that can’t grow in Georgia and sell them as wrapped trees. They have trees with roots balled in burlap so that, when Christmas is over, the tree can be planted.
And in their 50 acres they grow leyland cypress, Carolina sapphire cypress and blue ice cypress trees on a four-year cycle.
This year, the Carolina sapphire cypress trees have been a hit. Walking through the groves of trees on his farm on Friday, Kinsey stepped into cleared patch on a hillside across the pond from the barn where his brother, Kelly, was helping people buy wrapped trees.
Dotting through the snow in the grove were the stumps of Carolina cypress trees that were long gone from the hillside.
Next year, and in the coming years, Kinsey said he expects to move more than half of his cut-your-own trees to Carolina sapphire. But that’s the trick, and the trouble — he and his family have to try to guess the tastes of families in their Christmas trees four years out.
It’s just one guess the family has to make year-to-year, amid tropical storms and December snowfalls that topple trees, damage equipment and, ultimately, make work for folks who work the land.
“None of this was the plan,” Kinsey said. “We were all working full time doing other things. I was a teacher; my brother was a builder. We just intended to start a little side project that would be fun at Christmas time.”
How to preserve your tree
From tree farmer Andy Kinsey:
“Absolutely positively do not let your tree dry out. Don’t ever let the water bowl go dry, period.”
“You have to keep the vents from blowing in your room that the tree is in. It keeps the humidity in that room.”
“Don’t put your tree in a window that the sun shines in. Even if you have the vents off and there’s water in the bowl, if you have the Georgia sun shining on that thing all day it’s going to dry out.”
“I’m a big believer in two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen — straight up water and nothing else. That’s what we drink when we’re thirsty, that’s what a plant drinks in our nursery when they’re thirsty. We don’t feed our plants in the nursery aspirin or Sprite or bleach or any of the other things.”