Family builds home, farm and a Christmas experience

vbridges@newsobserver.comNovember 19, 2012 

Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm


  • Tips from Byron and Diana May • Learn from other farmers before you plant. • Read as much as you can on the N.C. State University website, • Check with local organizations, such as the Eastern N.C. Christmas Tree Growers’ Association. • Consider the amount of time you will have to put into the farming and the business. More information Online: Pricing: Choose-and-cut trees are $4.50 a foot, unless they are discounted “Charlie Brown” trees. Fraser fir prices depend on the market price, the height and grade of the tree. The price of a 6- to 8-foot tree ranges from $35 to $75.

— Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm is considered a holiday destination, a place where shoppers can sip hot chocolate, look for crafts and find the perfect tree.

Diana and Byron May stumbled into the business 18 years ago, after leaving Durham behind in search of a country home. The couple wanted something surrounded by open fields and winding roads.

The pair settled on a 24-acre piece of Chatham County land, complete with a house, an aging barn and a working Christmas tree farm.

With the new home came a new business venture – the Jordan Lake farm, which boasts 12 acres of pine and cypress trees.

“We said this is interesting, and we were really naive,” Byron May said. “We didn’t have kids. I guess we had more time than we had common sense, and we just didn’t know.”

In the beginning, the Mays relied on help from the former owners and recruited area children to assist with the annual day-after-Thanksgiving opening.

With the advice of N.C. State University and the Eastern N.C. Christmas Tree Growers’ Association – in which Diana May is now president – the couple honed their planting, fertilizing and sheering skills and learned how to protect the trees from pine tip moths and other insects.

Over the years, the Mays adjusted to the annual farming routine, increased the number of seasonal employees to 25-30 and turned their profits into more equipment and a new barn.

They learned to deal with the recession and the weather, both of which put a dent in their business. Ice storm damaged about 20 percent of their trees in the 2000s while a drought cost them more than half their seedlings.

“I think the plan developed as the business grew. We thought ‘how could we make it, where were we deficient and what were people wanting,’ ” Byron May said. “Almost as the business grew, we were trying to keep up because we could sell more trees, and every year there was just 10 to 20 percent more.”

The Mays developed their marketing strategy by adding signage and using a mailing list left behind by the previous owners.

“The good thing is we started with an existing farm with an existing client base,” Byron May said.

The couple sells wreaths, ornaments and Christmas crafts out of their gift shop, and markets their homemade wreaths to churches and other vendors.

“Just the last three years I have been tracking, we have probably doubled our business by just the stuff we make,” Diana May said.

Since Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm, on Martha’s Chapel Road in Apex, is a working farm, the Mays get breaks on their property taxes. And while the extra income is a benefit, it’s not enough to support their family, which includes 12-year-old daughter, Khoury, so they kept full-time jobs. She works at GlaxoSmithKline and he is a professor at Campbell.

The farm, which opens Saturday for the holiday season, has created challenges. But the couple has developed a passion for creating a Christmas escape outside of the bigger cities.

Kay Farrell, who has worked at the farm for four years, has enjoyed watching families grow up as they return year after year.

“It’s a whole experience,” she said. “It’s like a classic Norman Rockwell memory.”

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