Christmas tree sales fund adventurers' travel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Like snowbirds, they flock to South Florida during the winter.
But they pine for more than just a break from the cold.
South Florida's Christmas tree sellers work long hours, and the employment is temporary, but many make the trek in their RVs because they enjoy breathing in the sweet fragrance of Fraser firs and helping spread holiday cheer. (And the chance to live a few steps from work ain't bad, either.)
"It's the freedom. You are not stuck anywhere," said Naomi Richardson, from her lot outside St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, off Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach.
Wearing reindeer-shaped earrings and matching holiday ears, she happily helped customers with their important decision - finding that perfect tree.
"Do you want a tall and skinny, or a tall and fatty?" she asked a pair, referring to the various firs. "Yesterday we had some trees that were so fresh, they still had snow on them."
Nearby, her brother, Walter Richardson, trimmed the tree bottoms and loaded the firs onto customers' cars.
The Richardsons manage one of about 20 Florida tree lots for Hart-T-Tree Farms, a North Carolina business that caters almost exclusively to Broward and Palm Beach counties. Founded in 1976 in Hart, Mich., the farm business is owned by John and Kathy Chefas, who moved the operation to North Carolina to cultivate Fraser fir Christmas trees. John Chefas, a University of Miami graduate, and his wife thought South Florida would be an ideal market and began retailing here in 1980 out of Pompano Beach before expanding a year later to Boca Raton and Delray Beach.
Each year, the Chefases hire workers to manage the tree lots, which are usually assembled on church and nonprofit group properties. The couple find their tree helpers through online postings or word-of-mouth referrals.
"You have everything from young couples to retirees," Kathy Chefas said. "We have (everything from) small travel trailers to people in class A buses. They like to work some jobs, earn some money and see the world."
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Chefases had a training day for their workers, so veteran sellers could help show new ones the ins and outs of the Christmas tree business, such as how to price the firs (they're generally $10 per foot) and what to ask the customers.
"We teach them to ask questions: How tall is your ceiling? Where is this going? ... We try to make it a good family experience," said Kathy Chefas, who conducted the training day at Grace Community Church in Boca Raton this year. "I always tell them they are joining our family for a month and helping us bring in our harvest."
Nomads from NH
That's one of the reasons Kevin and Dodi Carr (and their black Lab, Sam) return every year to Fort Lauderdale to sell Christmas trees outside The Sanctuary church off North Federal Highway.
Parked in front of the 200-tree lot was the Carr's 35-foot RV and 2010 Jeep Wrangler, which they drove down from their home in Claremont, N.H. This is their fourth annual pilgrimage to Fort Lauderdale working for the Chefas.
"We come here because we love Fort Lauderdale," said Kevin Carr, a burly-bearded man whose voice hints at his New Hampshire roots. "We were only going to do this one year, but the Chefas family treats us as a part of their family. When we find people we really like working with, we stick with them."
The Carrs had owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle shop in New Hampshire four years ago when they decided to take a long road trip to explore other parts of the country. They are in their mid-50s, and wanted to do this while they are healthy and active.
During their travels, they pick up short-term jobs. In the spring and summer months, they work at an RV camp in southeast Massachusetts. And after December, they'll be residential volunteers at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale before driving back to New England. Their New Hampshire license plate captures their nomadic spirit: "Live Free or Die."
"This is a really beautiful country, and there is a lot of it that people will never know exists unless you go out and look at it, and we've been there," said Kevin Carr, as holiday music played overheard. "When we stop having fun, I can be going down the road in 15 minutes with all my belongings."
Over in Delray Beach, the Richardsons are selling Christmas trees for the first time. For the past year, they've been traveling the country in an RV and taking on different seasonal work, from helping run a cabin village outside Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to a toiling at a motorcycle rally in South Dakota.
"The beauty is that there is no rush. We can leave when we want and go where we want," said Naomi Richardson, 50, an ink saleswoman who decided to sell her Royal Palm Beach home, buy a 41-foot Fleetwood RV and invite her brother, who renovated homes, to come along.
"My sister was, like, 'Do you want to go on a sabbatical with me?'" recalled Walter Richardson, 57, who said the road trip has helped Naomi deal with the death of her husband last year. "She is happier now that she has been on the road. She is bubblier."
Mostly, Naomi Richardson said, she enjoys the views her work offers.
"Instead of having one beautiful tree in my house, now I've got 200 beautiful trees next to my house,' she said dwarfed by tall preening green pines. "I get to wake up every morning and smell them. It's great."