A good deal has changed in the 40 years, give or take, since Conlee Huffman first asked an Extension agent about Christmas trees.
The faces and names of Extension agents, for one thing, have changed. Conlee and his son Keith have run through a few agents. First, there was Waitstill Avery, an appropriate name for an agent in Avery County. After Avery, there was David Massee, then Jeff Owen, and now, Jerry Moody, the Extension director in Avery County.
It was the early 1970s when Conlee approached Avery with a question about Christmas trees. Avery was, of course, an agent with what was then North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service. The organization had not yet swapped “Cooperative” for “Agricultural” in the name.
Conlee wanted Avery’s advice on what to do with a bag of Christmas tree seedlings he had found on the road. They apparently had fallen off a truck.
Would it be possible, Conlee wondered, to find the owner?
Avery said determining ownership would be unlikely and suggested that Huffman plant the seedlings and grow some Christmas trees.
It was the beginning of a relationship between Conlee Huffman and later his son Keith with Extension that has benefitted both parties.
From Extension, the Huffmans have gained valuable knowledge. In the Huffmans, Extension has found a reliable partner for on-farm demonstrations and other activities.
Conlee’s home was and is on Little Squirrel Creek Road outside Newland, the county seat. The home sits on the crest of a ridge, where the road hairpins away from the property. What once was a carport has sensibly been turned into what now functions as a porch that takes advantage of a view that stretches east over the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way to Roan Mountain in Tennessee.
Conlee’s home sat on an acre of land when he asked Avery about the trees he’d found on the road. It was enough room to plant the 250 seedlings in the bag and become a Christmas tree farmer.
Conlee and Keith have been growing trees ever since. Along the way, Keith built a home on the property, and the Huffmans bought three more acres, on which they grew more trees.
And, pardon the expression, Conlee and Keith branched out. Extension agents and specialists have partnered with the Huffmans to experiment with and demonstrate how to grow a range of plants beyond Christmas trees.
In the late 1980s, the Huffmans experimented with rhododendrons and flame azaleas, with the help of Richard Bir, now retired Extension horticulture specialist who was stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Research and Extension Center at Mills River.
“We were new at this, so we called Extension,” Keith recalls. “Dick Bir came out and worked with us on these native plants.”
The Huffmans worked with Dr. Jeanine Davis, also an Extension horticultural specialist at Mills River, growing ginseng and goldenseal. They’ve also partnered with Extension to grow borage, coneflower and gerber daisies.
“We did the work,” says Conlee. “They brought the idea to us.”
Then there are the greenhouses, built below Conlee Huffman’s home on that slope that stretches toward Roan Mountain.
The Huffmans built their first greenhouse in the early 1990s. It was to be a place where Conlee’s wife, Carolyn, could pursue a hobby, raising bedding plants and hanging baskets. But things have a way of growing around the Huffman homestead.
“By 1994 the hobby was gone, and we had a business,” Conlee says.
Today there are four greenhouses. Keith and his wife, Rita, run the greenhouse business, with Keith splitting time between the greenhouses, Christmas trees and a construction business he owns. Conlee claims to be retired, although he’s developed a part-time job tending the gardens of resort homes in the area.
Over the years, the Extension connection has brought the Huffmans a number of visitors, and the operation has been the site of various Extension workshops. A bus full of folks from N.C. A&T State University stopped by once. And the Huffmans are hosts each year to local schoolchildren, who tour the greenhouses.
“We could never have done this without the Extension Service,” says Conlee. “We’d still be in the dark.”
Keith adds, “Anything we’re not sure of, we call them.”
— Dave Caldwell