Pastor has extra career as tree farmer

By Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

Rev. Steve Nelson of Jonesboro stays busy
at Christmas season woth tree salesw and
gift shop business.

The Rev. Steve Nelson of Jonesboro doesn't call himself a forester, but in his adopted specialty of raising Christmas trees for retail sale to a regional family market, he nevertheless follows a routine that results in professionally groomed and dressed trees for the holiday season that is every bit as detailed as the Best Management Practices that are followed by real foresters to achieve the maximum marketability of the pines that he also grows on a sixty-acre forestry tract down there in the country in Jackson Parish.

On a cold morning in mid-November, he walked me through the Nelson Christmas Tree Farm and Gift Shop that he and his wife, Glenda, operate on a 12-acre plot on LA Highway 4, eight miles west of downtown Jonesboro. Marked by a sign out front, the spread, largely invisible from the highway, includes two main sections of trees in various stages of maturity, plus a gift shop that Mrs. Nelson operates with a variety of holiday decorations, arts and crafts. A couple of other attractions are the children's train ride ( a line of wheeled barrels towed by a four-wheeler), and a candy-striped outdoor country bathroom with padded folding seat, which he said Mrs. Nelson wanted to make sure we saw. She is a retired school teacher, and currently does substitute teaching on call from several area schools, and was working on the day we visited.

With an outdoor temperature not yet out of the upper 30's, we made the walk-through, snapped photos, and soon retired to the warmth of the Nelson living room in their comfortable manufactured home. I shook off the cold while he brewed a fresh pot of strong, hot coffee and we continued the conversation.

When not tending his trees, Rev. Nelson serves as Louisiana State Director of the Church of God, overseeing 55 congregations within the state. Duties include putting ministers in churches, ordination and licensing of ministers, and other matters of church business. He himself served as a pastor for 42 years, including 22 years at the Jonesboro Church of God. A native of Indiana (in the Indianapolis area), after graduation from high school he went to Houston, Texas to attend college. It was there that he met his wife, a native of West Monroe, and upon graduation he began his career in the Church of God ministry. They have two sons, one a church minister in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the other a music minister in Shreveport.

It was while serving the church at Benton, Arkansas, that Rev. Nelson made the connection that brought him into the Christmas tree farm business. During the years that he was ministering to that congregation, a member operated a Christmas tree farm. Later, as the member's health was failing, he suggested to Rev. Nelson that it was a good business and he offered to sell his assets at a reasonable price. The deal was made, and Rev. Nelson began the operation at the Highway 4 location 12 years ago. Three years after his first planting, he began selling Christmas trees, and the business has enjoyed a steady growth each year since.

To those of us who have been known to get out into our own woodlots and whack down a promising looking pine or cedar sapling, or dash down to the local department store or civic club sales lot to grab a likely looking specimen to dress for the home holiday season, there is more to producing a proper Christmas tree than meets the eye, as became apparent from Rev. Nelson(s explanation of the steps that go into the professionally grown and groomed finished product.

It begins with the selection of the seedlings (as the real forester knows) in his BMP practices in today's world of genetically improved seedlings for commercial timber production.

The Nelson farm obtains most varieties of seedlings from a wholesale nursery in West Monroe, and another in North Carolina. The number one selling tree is the Leyland cypress, a non-shedding, non-allergenic, dark gree specimen. Another popular variety is the Carolina Sapphire, a sweet smelling lighter green tree, and the Blue Ice, with peripheral coloring like frost. These come from the West Monroe nursery. Another popular variety is the Frasier Fir, a popular brand often sold in commercial stores, where they are prepared months in advance and often lose their freshness before "going home for Christmas." Nelson obtains the ready-to-decorate Frasier Fir from a nursery in North Carolina, where they are harvested, loaded and trucked for next-day delivery to the Nelson farm.

From putting seedlings in the ground to first harvest takes three years, Rev. Nelson points out. During their growth the roots and nourished with fertilizer and water, the lower limbs shorn regularly so that the lower stem is clean for up to 18 inchyes for harvesting and mounting for holiday display. During growth the limbs are cropped for shaping the tree to the desired conical configuration, with periodic application of non-toxic, non-flammable pigment to enhance the color. When ready for harvest at the pre-Christmas season, trees are tagged showing variety, height, and pricing. Customers who often come with the entire family are able to walk through the rows of growing trees, pick their favorite, have it harvested, wrapped in netting to preserve the foliage, and mounted on the customer's vehicle for transport.

The gift shop, the Santa'a train ride, and other features are popular with young and old, Rev. Nelson says. During the season, he has two men who help with handling the trees and other duties on the farm. He anticipates a good season for the 2014 Christmas.

Christmas trees come in small, medium, and large, plus several
varieties at Nelson Farm on Hwy 4 near Jonesboro, LA

Hand made crafts and a variety of gifts & decoator items
are available in the shop.