Each year when she was growing up, Lisa Peairs looked forward to a particular seasonal family tradition. She, along with her brothers and father, would venture out on their property, canvassing the wooded areas for a Christmas tree. In her memory, the trees weren’t lookers; some were oddly shaped or just plain ugly. But something about that annual hunt for the perfect tree stuck with her, and when she married her husband Ricky, she made a request.
“I always wanted a Christmas tree farm,” she said. “I just thought it would be the neatest thing.”
That’s how Windy Hills Farm was founded (though the Peairs goodnaturedly agree that was the first and last time Ricky readily acquiesced to any of Lisa’s suggestions).
Windy Hills Farm is a humble gathering of acreage in Ethel, Louisiana, an unincorporated community north of Slaughter. Approaching the property on a picturesque rural highway, guests are greeted by a gigantic snowman-shaped Christmas tree painted white and on permanent display. Decked out in festive gear, the snowman towers above the six-foot farm-raised trees that will find their way into many area homes this holiday season.
The Peairs planted their first seedlings in January of 1999; by Christmas of 2002, they were selling the mature trees at their “choose and cut” four-acre farm. Because fir trees struggle to thrive in the South, many local Christmas tree farmers rely on species more adapted to the heat: Leyland cypresses, Carolina sapphires, and the most popular, Murray cypresses. Christmas trees require time; they take three to four years to reach a height suitable for selling.
Despite having both grown up on farms (in St. Helena Parish and in Pride), neither Lisa nor Ricky knew the first thing about the care and upkeep of these types of trees; but with the help of other local Christmas tree farmers and members of the Southern Christmas Tree Association, they were able to troubleshoot common problems and bounce ideas off of more seasoned tree farmers.
The couple each have other full-time occupations. Lisa owns a veterinary practice, and Ricky is a cattle rancher; so the pair split up the year-round duties of running the farm. “We wear many hats,” Lisa said.
Ricky handles the tree trimming, weeding, fertilizing, spraying, and constant mowing that keeps the trees pristine and picture-perfect, while Lisa updates the Windy Hills website and manages marketing and sales. Until recently, Windy Hills supplied LSU with the massive Christmas tree it erects annually in front of the Memorial Tower.
Beyond trees ranging in size from Charlie Brown-esque to ginormous, Windy Hills offers wreaths, garlands, and small gifts as well as Ricky’s homemade muscadine and mayhaw jellies, fig preserves, and pickled okra. This year, Lisa and Ricky are excited about offering the latest in Christmas tree décor: trees painted silvery white, dark purple, and rosy pink. “There’s people that want something weird every year,” Lisa said.
But the Peairs are concerned that, following Louisiana’s recent historic flooding, customers may be prioritizing other expenditures over seasonal cheer. “We don’t really know how the flood is going to impact our business,” Lisa said. “I haven’t even put anything on Facebook about our trees because so many clients got displaced by the flood. I don’t know if they’ll be getting trees.”
Windy Hills will open the day after Thanksgiving and will shut down the operation once it’s out of saleable trees, which happens earlier and earlier each year since many other Louisiana Christmas tree farms have shuttered. According to the Peairs, the state’s Christmas tree farms have disappeared because elderly owners are retiring and younger generations aren’t stepping in. Currently, only sixteen members of the Southern Christmas Tree Association—spanning Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—are located in the state. Dwindling competition means more business for Windy Hills, but it also means the farm runs out of mature trees sooner each year. “It’s a good problem to have,” Lisa said, “but people don’t realize we can’t snap our fingers and grow a thousand more trees.”
As for the future, Windy Hills has no big plans to ramp up production or to expand, as their competitors have, into the realm of “agritourism,” with pumpkin patches and Easter egg hunts. “We’re never going to be a one hundred-acre farm, and we don’t aspire to be a one hundred-acre farm,” Lisa said. “We like visiting with people; we like the hands on.”
When choosing a tree this year, Lisa urges families not to aim for perfection but to aim to build memories like the ones she cherishes of her own family from all those years ago. “Some come wanting really perfect trees,” she said. “The kids aren’t going to remember what the tree looked like; they’re going to remember coming to get it.”