Mention sustainable Christmas trees in Western North Carolina and those who know about the industry will tell you the man to talk to is Curtis Buchanan. Buchanan is a pioneer of progressive thinking, a visionary with activist instincts, a skilled chair-maker and a steward of forests both near and far. He’s a man who sees the results of the decisions he makes today well into the future — in short, a man who embodies the idea of sustainability.
Buchanan and his father have been growing Christmas trees on Roan Mountain for more than 30 years, on land that his grandfather farmed, and his father before him, and his father before him. For the past 15 years, his Fraser firs have been USDA-certified organic. He was the first certified organic grower of Fraser fir trees in the nation. This year, he says, his phone rings two or three times as often as in previous years. “Finally people are catching on that there is a relationship between these trees and the health of soil, and our health,” Buchanan says. “We are the health of the ecosystem.”
Buchanan says his intent has always been to cultivate an organic tree that would compete with traditionally grown trees in size, shape and quality. Even an environmentally conscious consumer wouldn’t pay more, or even the same price, for a tree that looked inferior to traditionally grown trees, he reasons. He has mostly succeeded in this aim, harvesting about 4,000 trees per year.
Trees that aren’t up to snuff — his “seconds,” as he likes to call them — are donated to Warren Wilson College. The college’s forestry students then sell the trees at the French Broad Food Co-op in downtown Asheville as a fundraising effort. This year’s proceeds will help sponsor the students’ travel expenses and attendance at the Appalachian Society of American Foresters conference in Charleston, S.C. early next year.
Though local and regional forestry issues have always been important to Buchanan, his advocacy and activism reaches far beyond the mountains of WNC. In 1993, with the help of Brian Boggs (another WNC artisan who specializes in handmade chairs) and author Scott Landis (of Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection), he launched Green Wood/Madera Verde, a community-based sustainable forestry initiative in Latin America. According to the group’s website, its mission is to “increase the value of the forest to its inhabitants through appropriate woodworking technology. As a result, residents of forest communities are able to earn more through forest management than they would from conventional agriculture or destructive logging.”
Despite his relative success in our neck of the woods, and a thriving market for organic Christmas trees, Buchanan is in the process of transitioning out of farming. The irony is that it’s just not sustainable for him to continue farming the way he’s done for the past three decades. He lives an hour away from Roan Mountain where he grows his trees; his father, who does most of the shearing, mowing and fertilizing, is almost 90 years old; and Buchanan wants to devote more of his energy to his full time job: crafting Windsor chairs, a style that has been around for more than 300 years. His workshop, where he also teaches individual classes on furniture construction, is a 16-by-20-foot timber-framed structure in his backyard. Even by walking, the commute is much shorter than the drive to Roan Mountain.
In addition to having more time to work in his studio, Buchanan, who helped to establish the local farmers market in his community, plans on spending more time in his garden, increasing his lettuce yield to sell at the market. Even though he has much to look forward to once his trees have all been harvested in a couple of years, retirement for this Christmas-tree farmer comes at a price.
Asked what he will miss about not growing trees, Buchanan names delivering the trees to the individual homes of people in his community. Mostly, however, he says he’ll miss working the land that his father and grandfathers worked for generations before him. “I’ll miss knowing I’m seeing the same view as they saw — the same creeks, the setting sun lighting up the same mountains as they saw,” Buchanan says.
With any luck, those memories will sustain him as well as the land where he and his family have always farmed.
To learn more about Curtis Buchanan’s trees, chairs and classes, visit curtisbuchananchairmaker.com. To learn more about Green Wood/Madera Verde, visit greenwoodglobal.org. To purchase a Christmas tree from Warren Wilson College, e-mail forestry student Kira Santulli at firstname.lastname@example.org
— John Piper Watters is a father, artist and freelance writer with a day job. He lives in the Asheville area and can be reached at email@example.com.