Romance Christmas Tree Farm looks to seasons to come

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published November 22, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 21, 2012 at 1:50 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Matthew McKay plays among the trees at the Romance Christmas Tree Farm, which opens Friday. Matthew’s grandfather Mitch McKay is co-owner of the farm and hopes to turn it over to his children one day.

— The day after Thanksgiving won’t include a food coma or holiday shopping for the McKay family.

For the 12th season in a row, family and friends will gather at the Romance Christmas Tree Farm to kick off the season. The farm has stood in the same spot along Arkansas 5 since the early 1980s. In 2000, Mitch McKay; his wife, Whitney; and their neighbors Kevin and Janet Newcom purchased the land and took over the care of the farm.

“We wanted to have something for us when we retire, have something to hand down to the grandkids,” Mitch McKay said.

McKay learned the ins and outs of caring for the tree farm when he would come back to the area to visit his parents. He grew up next to the tree farm, and as his parents got older, he and his wife moved back to his childhood home. By the time he took over co-ownership of the farm, he knew the schedule: Plant in early March; trim in May, June and October.

“It’s a choose-and-cut farm, so we plant new trees next to the holes from the ones cut the year before,” McKay said.

This year, the tree rows are slightly thinner than seasons past, thanks to drought conditions from the summer. Of the 500 trees McKay and his helpers planted this spring, nearly every one was lost. The older trees that survived didn’t see the growth McKay was expecting, but it won’t damage this year’s turnout too much. McKay estimates the farm will sell between 400 and 600 trees this season.

Leyland cypress is the type of tree grown most on the farm, but some Carolina sapphire cypress are grown as well. The Leyland has a more wispy, drooping branch than most traditional holiday trees. The Carolina Sapphire develops a bluish tint and has spinier branches.

“People want to have a choice in what to buy,” McKay said. To fill out their stock, the farm gets Virginia pine trees shipped in from southern Arkansas, and Fraser firs from the Carolinas.

“The big difference between our shipped trees and the trees at big retail stores is that their trees are often cut in October and sit in big trucks for months,” McKay said. “They’re already dead, needles falling off when you get them.”

The trees sent to Romance Christmas Tree Farm, McKay said, are cut just one or two days before they arrive and are kept in water to stay fresh.

Though the farm officially opens for the season on Friday, customers from all over the area have been making the trip to the Romance farm to tag their trees ahead of time. Tags are left at a small shed on the property, and folks are allowed to put their names and contact info on a tree ahead of time.

“It used to be that people would show up a bit before Thanksgiving to tag their tree,” McKay said. “Then it was the 1st of November, then it was the 1st of October. We’ve had people come in the middle of the summer to ask if they can tag a tree,” McKay said, laughing.

Once the farm opens at 9 a.m. Friday, McKay expects a steady flow of customers for the first two weekends of the season, with demand tapering off after that. Cars had been getting so packed in the gravel driveway of the farm that McKay built a parking lot for this season. Eventually, he’d like to see the farm offer concessions and a picnic area for families. Maybe a playground. Anything to make the farm a destination for the community during the holiday season.

McKay currently commutes several times a month from

Romance to his custom manufacturing business in Perry, Okla. He doesn’t mind the drive, but he’s looking forward to the days when he can sit back at the tree farm and watch.

“I’ve got 11 great-nieces and -nephews that are 9 years of age or less,” McKay said. “In two or three years, maybe we’ll have them doing a little more around there so the old guys can take a break and talk. Now whether that happens or not …”

As McKay walked around his farm on a recent afternoon, his grandkids Lakyn and Matthew ran through the rows of trees, a playground they know well. Matthew jokingly hugged a tree just his height as McKay half-heartedly tried to get them to sit still for more than a second. Seeing his grandkids and other children arrive at the farm for the holidays is what makes the year-round work worthwhile.

“It’s the first kid that gets out of the car,” McKay said. “That’s what it’s for. You start getting tired, but when that first youngster runs out with a big smile on his face, you’re ready to go.”

Hours and additional information for the Romance Christmas Tree Farm can be found at romancechristmastrees.com or by calling (501) 556-3133.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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