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story.lead_photo.caption Acres of evergreens awaiting new homes stretch across McAlpine Christmas Tree Farm. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)

Christmas tree farmers in Central Arkansas and beyond report that business is as brisk as the recent weather, with pandemic-weary customers flocking to their farms for trees and wreaths to spruce up their homes for the holidays.

"We're definitely doing better than in recent years," says Bobbie McAlpine, co-owner with husband Harold of McAlpine Christmas Tree Farm. "I think people just want to get out and do something traditional after being more or less cooped up since March."

The McAlpines are welcoming back customers who come each year to choose a tree, at 197 Christmas Tree Lane off Arkansas 84 a bit west of Bismarck. The regulars stop by as early as October to tag the tree they'll return to cut down this month. A surprising number of new customers also are appearing.

"They're coming from all over Arkansas," Bobbie says. "We even had a family of Texans who drove all the way from Dallas to buy their tree. They said it was a chance to get away for a road trip and visit Hot Springs before stopping by here. We bundled their tree and tied it on the roof of their car."​

An eco-minded sign posted along the lane into the McAlpine site carries this message: "Feel free to breathe deep. Real Christmas trees absorb carbon dioxide and send out fresh oxygenated air."

There's more of a theme-park feel to Motley's Tree Farm, 13729 Sandy Ann Drive in southwest Little Rock. Extra activities include piglet races and a model of a pirate ship for clambering youngsters. Mike's Grill sells sandwiches and snacks.

Gallery: Sightseeing — Central Arkansas' Tree Farms

Bradbury Christmas Tree Farm, 9427 Donna Lane, Mabelvale, is planted with more than 8,000 evergreens stretching over 35 acres. Decorations near the entrance include inflatable holiday figures and decorated trees.

Romance Christmas Tree Farm, 1260 Arkansas 5, Romance, posts a sign joking that "unsupervised children will be recruited for elves." Near the entrance is a red mailbox into which youngsters can deposit their letters to Santa Claus.

A cautionary sign at the farms might incline shoppers with limited sawing skills to have their tree cut down for them. It reads in part:

"Warning — Under Arkansas law, an agrotourism activity operator is not liable for the injury or death of a participant in any activity resulting from the inherent risk of agrotourism activity. Inherent risks include ... the potential for you as a participant to act in a negligent way that may contribute to your own injury or death."

Tree-farm prices, which can vary widely, are generally based on the height of a given tree. Evergreen wreaths are for sale at some locations, as well as other Christmas-theme items. Tree varieties include fir, spruce, pine and cypress.

These four farms have been operating for decades. They are keeping alive a Christmas-tree tradition rooted in present-day Germany in the 1400s. The earliest decorated indoor tree was recorded in 1605 in Strasbourg, now in France. It was decorated with roses, apples, wafers and other sweets.

Mentions of Christmas trees in private homes in North America date to the late 1700s. As the United States expanded westward in the 1800s, there were countless evergreens for families to cut in the vast woodlands. Commercial tree farms had developed by the start of the 1900s.

In the middle of the 20th century, artificial trees began competing for Christmas commerce with live conifers. In 2018, 82% of American households decorated fake trees, while 18% chose the real thing.

Farms in Central Arkansas are facing up to that trend, in the spirit of a botanist who once observed: "We live in an artificial environment. The Christmas tree is one of the few things left that is natural."

The phone number for McAlpine Christmas Tree Farm is (501) 865-3731; for Romance Christmas Tree Farm, (501) 556-5173; for Motley's Tree Farm, (501) 883-1129; for Bradbury Christmas Tree Farm, (501) 602-2449. Some farms do not have an email address. Information on other tree farms around the state can be found at onlyinark.com.

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