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Monday, Sep 18, 2017
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At tree farm, signs of an evergreen economy

RIDGE MANOR - In his 20-year role as managing general partner of a ridiculously popular Christmas tree operation, Tony Harris has worn innumerable hats. Not that seasonal visitors to this yuletide destination would guess based on Harris' choice of daywear, which tends to be whichever random ballcap he snatches each morning on the way out the door to take granddaughter Anna to preschool. Nonetheless, in his year-round effort to avoid even the hint of idleness, Harris has been — is, in fact — grower, builder, innovator, opportunist, dealmaker, salesman, entrepreneur, surveyor and speculator, not to mention handyman, electrician and mechanic. So much headgear for one snowy-haired head. And now, one more: amateur economist.
The Black Friday tsunami that caught most of the experts flat-footed washed all the way up (or down, depending on your choice of interstate exits) U.S. 301 to the rolling 26 acres alongside the Withlacoochee River that comprise the Ergle Family Christmas Tree Farm. Harris still was marveling at the surge late last week as he and a small team of associates made preparations for the weekend now upon us. The days after Thanksgiving were "the best weekend we've ever had," he says. "If this keeps up, we could set a record." Asked to predict how many trees he'll move between opening day and "when Santy Claus flies," Harris waxes cryptic over a twitchy mustache: "Thousands." What that would mean in terms of actual trees sold is between him, wife and business manager Debbie (Ergle) Harris and the IRS. In the larger world, it is also beside the point, that point being: Maybe, at last, there's something happening here. It's not just the number of sales that is encouraging, it's the size of the trees buyers wind up tying to their SUV roofs. "They're going big," Harris says. Dade City's Greg Patterson and his wife, Martha Butterworth, browsed Ergle's shade houses — 15,000 square feet of pines, firs and spruces imported from North Carolina and Michigan — for more than an hour before settling on a robust, 12-foot Fraser fir. Even then, the decision was brokered by the growling stomachs of Patterson's companions, daughter and son-in-law Keely and Dave Stalker (a U.S. Army captain who returned Friday to his unit in Afghanistan). "If you're going to go the extra mile to come out here," the unhurried Patterson shrugged, "you have to be willing to go the extra mile once you're here." As they pulled away, Harris tapped the cash register. "That's what I was talking about." The tree was far taller than any they'd bought in the past, and it carried a knee-buckling price tag. But Patterson hadn't flinched. * * * * *Similarly, Kevin Glenn, a regional marketing director for an international development company, rolled in with his wife, Christine, and their firstborn son, 17-year-old Derek, a safety and wide receiver for the River Ridge football team. (Two other forlorn Glenn children had scheduling conflicts, but Kevin had a weekend decorating deadline.) They motored all the way from New Port Richey, as they do each year, in search of a tree and renewed acquaintance with a traditional Christmas experience, and departed with a tree, a bucket of fresh-picked hydroponic strawberries, three blueberry bushes and a fresh wreath. * * * * *We readily concede the evidence is too limited and too localized to suggest that Harris' experience is the coal mine canary in reverse. Even in the face of reported job growth in Florida, or Friday's eyebrow-raising news about the dip in the national unemployment rate. Maybe what we're seeing is but a temporary rebellion against the New Frugality. On the other hand, at 59, Tony Harris has learned a thing or two about the inspections of gift horses. Consider Miss Lucy, a peaceful pooch of indeterminate age, origin and breed who wandered in from the fields just about a year ago. They might as well have named her Serendipity. She arrived on the heels of a couple who'd gone out toting a saw and limited expectations, and returned trailing a homegrown Florida sand pine and a regular Hallmark Channel Christmas memory: This sad, starving, muddy stray with bloody ears, stick-out ribs and hope in her eyes quickly emerged as the farm's new mascot. At long last, then, you needn't have a diploma from the University of Chicago to detect a whiff of change on the air. And if you tell folks the aroma tingles your sinuses like an evergreen forest, well, you're not going to get an argument from Harris.

tjackson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7068 Facebook: Tom Jackson Tampa Tribune

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