PINING AWAY: Lori and Doug Miller's accidental career as Christmas-tree farmers quickly became a labor of love.
Photography by Tony Valainis

EVERY YEAR BETWEEN Thanksgiving and Christmas, locals converge on Doug and Lori Miller’s farm at the south end of Terre Haute, Ind., looking for the perfect Christmas tree. They will grab a bow saw and head up the rise behind the family’s white bungalow to fell a Douglas fir, or maybe a Scots pine. They will look for a tree with the perfect conical shape and test its feathery limbs to see if the tree will hold the heavy clay angels their children made in kindergarten alongside Grandma’s delicate old ornaments. The kids, giggling, will play hide and-seek in the rows, brushing up against the trees, scattering a Christmas scent into the cold air.

“We have seven acres, seven different plots of trees, about 600 trees on each plot,” says Doug, surveying his empire on a hot fall day. “[That’s] 4,200 trees. A lot of people think you put a tree in the ground and it’s ready in two years, but it’s a seven-year investment. By the time a tree matures, I will have visited that tree in the neighborhood of 50 times, whether it’s to trim it, straighten it or spray it — and that’s not counting mowing the weeds around them.” Every year, he harvests 600 trees in one of the plots — or rather, his customers do. “They will pick a saw up,” he says, and “go out where we have a patch marked. They pick and cut a tree down. We shake the loose needles out and bale ’em. That’s the nuts and bolts of the operation at Holiday Hill Tree Farm.” After a brief, dramatic pause, he says, “What really goes on here is a whole lot more fun.”

That includes the festive Warm’n Hut, a shed that is transformed into a scene right out of The Night Before Christmas during the holidays. It is a gathering place complete with a blazing fire, cups of homemade hot chocolate, women making wreaths and kids sneaking candy canes. Christmas services are held nearby in the barn. Sometimes, Santa drops by to razz the local ladies about being bad.

“When people step out of their car, it can be raining, and they’re giggling and laughing,” says Doug. “The wind can be blowing, terrible ­conditions — people are still coming for a good time. When you come out expecting fun, you’re gonna find it. It’s the neatest experience to be part of it. It’s a real blessing.” Families come back each year, taking Christmas pictures with the trees, says Lori. “We see the kids grow up.”

Doug, who also works in information technology full time for the Terre Haute school district, shrugs off the work of this, his second job. Much of it is not fun: grinding up the stumps in January after the trees are harvested; planting new seedlings in March; spraying for bugs; battling the weeds that never stop through the spring, then trimming the trees in the summer to create the perfect conical shape. “I have a backpack motor attached to a sickle blade,” he says. “I just start shearing around the trees until I get dizzy.”

The couple met at Indiana State University in Terre Haute and started running Holiday Hill in 2000 by accident. Neither is from a farming family, although Doug’s father grew Christmas trees for his family. Doug and Lori bought their bungalow at the corner of the tree farm, but then its original owner lost his job and had to move. They started helping out with mowing, then realized tree farming could fund college for their three kids — now 27, 22 and 17 and each an expert at marketing the Christmas spirit. Friends, too, come out to help. “It’s not something we set out to do,” says Doug. “It’s something God dropped in our lap.”

Drought and pests are perennial foes, as they are for each of the nation’s 13,000-plus Christmas-tree farms. Two years ago, Doug had to burn 200 mature trees because of a fungal blight called Diplodia. Last year, he had to replace half of his seedlings due to a drought. Many Indiana growers don’t like Scots pine — the traditional Christmas tree — because bugs and disease just love them. But Doug stuck with them and lucked out; they are drought-resistant, so his crop survived the dry summer. Firs are big sellers, but they dry out quickly inside. “I could talk about Christmas trees all day long,” says Doug, standing by a Douglas fir. “Seems more like a hobby than a farm. It’s not a lot of work because I enjoy it.”

As I leave, I’m feeling really bad about that fake tree from China I bought two years ago. Maybe this year, I will go looking for the perfect Christmas tree. A real one.