Annabella Rollins got what some experts call the perfect tree for her first Christmas.
The 9-month-old slept in a stroller as her parents roamed among the 350 trees in the Cherokee Boulevard tent, but the salesmen knew which one they'd pick before Annabella's dad walked to the counter with it.
"I knew that one was going to go first as soon as I put it out," said Mike Tavares, who manages the stand. "It just had a really good shape. I've been looking at trees so long, I know what people are going to like."
The Rollins family was the first of the year to buy a tree at the Tom Sawyer Christmas Tree Farm, getting a head start on the holidays on Tuesday. Annabella's mother, Vanessa, and father, Nathaniel, said they always shop for real trees over artificial ones for the smell, tradition and shopping experience.
"We always like to come early because, for one, you get the best pick," Nathaniel said. "We like to get a jump on Christmas."
For the tree lot, the Rollins' shopping expedition was part of the calm before the storm of shoppers that descends on stands starting today. The Christmas tree industry did nearly $1 billion in sales last year, and this year's outlook is bright.
"Thanksgiving falls a little earlier on the calendar, and that means four full weekends of sales before Christmas," said Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association.
It's a high-pressure time period for salesmen, he said. If the next month doesn't go well, they have no chance to make up sales.
"People tend not to buy them in April," he said.
Predicting Christmas tree sales is difficult, but Dungey expects to see similar sales this year as last, somewhere in the ball park of 27 million trees for about $976 million.
About one-third of those sales are made right where the trees are grown, at places such as the Bosshardt Tree Farm in Chickamauga, Ga.
TREE CARE TIPS
• When selecting a tree, gently pinch a branch and pull it toward you. If few needles come off, it's fresh.
• Make a fresh cut across the base of the tree's trunk before placing it in a water-filled stand.
• Check water levels regularly. A tree can absorb a gallon of water in the first day. A sap seal forms four to six hours after water levels drop below the tree's stem, preventing the tree from absorbing water.
• Keep the tree away from heat sources such as fireplaces, radiators and television sets. Unplug lights before going to bed or leaving the house.
Source: National Christmas Tree Association
A total of 17,415,971 Christmas trees were harvested from every state except for Alaska, Nevada and Wyoming in 2007, the most recent data available. The top tree producers were:
Source: United States Department of Agriculture
Elaine Bosshardt plans to spend much of the next month looking out her window at the hundreds of Leyland cypress and Virginia pines her kids started planting about 15 years ago, when the farm started as a home-school project for the six children. They planted the trees, pruned them and watched them grow for years.
The business slowly grew, but the kids grew more quickly. Now, Bosshardt and her husband watch over the farm as 10 to 20 people a day, more on weekends, walk through to chop down their Christmas trees.
"It's just the experience, families walking around. I just watch them out the window," she said. "They just enjoy the walk and, for a lot of people, cutting down their own Christmas tree is an important tradition."
Tennessee and Georgia produced a combined total of 217,149 trees in 2007, the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A lot goes into growing those trees. Farmers have to monitor their crop year-round, shearing branches to make sure trees grow straight, testing for disease and keeping away the deer.
Barbie Baldwin, perennial grower at Signal Mountain Nursery, said she sells about 50 live Christmas trees, roots and all, that customers take home, decorate for Christmas, then plant outside when the holiday is over.
"It's a little bit different. It's a little bit more difficult, but for the people who don't want to kill a tree to decorate it, it's a great way to go," she said.
The Rollinses don't plan to go that far, but they will be headed back to Tavares' stand next year.
Tavares said he'll see mostly families entering his tent and comparing the pros and cons of his trees over the next few weeks. He'll see them debate over the necessary height, the most appealing shape and necessary fullness, and he's glad to be a part of their holidays.
"It's not going out into the woods and cutting the tree down, but it simulates that," he said. "It's got a lot of family tradition, a lot of people just like to do that as a family."