Cover Story

Daddy’s Little Girl Takes Over the Farm
By Laura Hickey, Associate Editor

Sue Bostic is a living legacy of her father’s love.

Sue BosticA bird’s-eye view of rural Craig County during the breezy fall season is breathtaking — majestic mountains, dappled by morning sunlight, frame acres and acres of rolling countryside. This land, dotted by thick patches of bright orange, crimson, yellow and green trees and grazing livestock, is a hidden paradise in its own right.

Quietly nestled in this picturesque setting is Joe’s Trees, a Christmas tree farm, where a single tree was chosen as Virginia’s finest to be displayed in the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond this Christmas. The farm’s 100,000 trees of every shape and size are planted with perfection, from a distance resembling a patterned quilt. This tree farm clearly represents meticulous planning, undaunted devotion, and hard work spanning many seasons and many years. The tree farm also represents the beautiful relationship between a father and his youngest daughter.

Sue Sublett Bostic, proud owner of Joe’s Trees, remembers the sad day in 1988 when her father was taken to surgery to replace a valve in his heart. Unfortunately, the surgery took an unexpected turn for the worse. "Daddy died 12 hours after the surgery, but on the way to the hospital that morning he was instructing me the whole time about the tree farm and what he wanted me to do. One of the things that stuck in my mind was when he said, ‘If someday you have to take the farm over and you can’t do it, just remember to sell the trees and not the land.’ He wanted me to keep the land in the family. He had never had surgery before, so it was a scary thing for him to be going to the hospital and having major surgery," she recalls.

Bostic has been entering trees in the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association’s (VCTGA) annual competition since she became co-owner of the Christmas tree farm with her mother, Erma Sublett, in 1993. Her ultimate goal: to be eligible to enter one of her trees in the national Christmas tree competition and vie for the distinguished honor of presenting a beautiful, fresh Christmas tree to the President and first family, and then to have it grace the elegant Blue Room of the White House throughout the holiday season.

Much to her surprise, the one tree Bostic entered in the VCTGA competition this year, a stout concolor fir, was named Grand Champion Christmas Tree for 2000. Bostic says, "I have been working hard to win this award for years. My entries have won in the specific species category many times, but the top award eluded me until now. When it was announced, I was almost in disbelief." Her 1-year-old son, Jake, was with her when she won the competition. "After all the years of trying to win, I considered him my good luck charm," Bostic says, referring to her son.

Sue Bostic, owner of Joe's Trees, attributes her current success to her parents, Erma and Joe Sublett (pictured here in 1982). Joe Sublett died after heart surgery in 1988, but his wife will always fondly remember him bringing her coffee in bed and picking wildflowers for her every day for 40 years.

The winning Christmas tree was chosen at the VCTGA’s August convention and a three-judge panel selected it with the following criteria considered: foliage, density, uniformity, taper and marketability. The three judges included representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Christmas Tree Association and Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Sixteen trees were entered in the competition from across the state, according to Jim Clarke, VCTGA convention manager.

As winner of the Grand Champion title, Joe’s Trees will be entitled to provide a tree for the Governor’s Mansion this year and will also be eligible to enter a tree in the 2002 national Christmas tree competition — quite an honor and, for Bostic, one step closer to her ultimate goal.

Joe Miller Sublett, Bostic’s father, founded Joe’s Trees, located on Route 42 between New Castle and Newport, more than 30 years ago as an experiment. His experiment involved growing concolor firs, which he considered to be the Christmas tree of the future.

Concolor firs, also known as white firs (Pinaceae Abies concolor), are known for their delightful citrus fragrance. They are classified as exotic conifers and are distinguished by a silvery blue-green-colored needle similar to that of a blue spruce. The trees can live for up to 350 years and have soft, flat needles that extend at right angles from the twig and curve in an upward direction with branches strong enough to hold most ornaments. Yes, the tree can hold even those precious, but large and cumbersome, ornaments made with love by the little ones.

A Hobby that Grew — Literally!

According to Bostic, her father’s introduction to the tree-farming business came through a 4-H project where Sublett was given several hundred trees. "He planted them and watched them grow. He figured it would be a good investment to have money down the road, and then somehow he just got hooked onto it. It started out as a hobby and then just got bigger and bigger from there," says Bostic.

Jake, Sue Bostic's 1-year-old son and good luck charm, touches the Grand Champion Christmans Tree for 2000 grown on his mother's tree farm, Joe's Trees. The tree was given top honors by the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association at its August convention.

Bostic credits her parents with her current success. "I was 8 years old when I sheared my first tree. Now, I thank my dad every day for making me work back then. I learned so much watching him," she says. "My mother has stayed real supportive. By passing the farm on to me, she made all this possible."

Bostic, born and raised in Craig County, was the youngest child of six, with one brother and four sisters. When speaking about the tree farm or her accomplishment, Bostic’s conversation always returns to her father — an indication of the bond between this father and daughter. "I grew up following behind my father and doing whatever he told me to do while learning each step of the planting, shearing and mowing process. I would be on summer break and Daddy would say ‘We’re going out to work today.’ At the time, I didn’t think it was fair because all the other kids got to stay home and I had to work. But now I wish he was here because he taught me more than any college degree could. Hands-on experience and seeing it done each day gets embedded in your mind a lot more than if you read it in a book," Bostic says. "He taught me a lot back then that I didn’t realize he was teaching me."

Bostic describes her father as being smart, gentle and kind. According to Bostic, his motto was — "If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all." Those who knew him knew he lived by this motto every day and instilled this notion in those he loved. "Daddy would do anything for anybody. You could stop and ask anybody up or down the road about him, and they would have nothing but kind things to say. That’s how popular he was in the county," Bostic says.

Bostic now works as a part-time D.A.R.E. officer (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in Craig County. She accepted the position in March of 1996, three years after she became co-owner of Joe’s Trees with her mother. Her husband and source of support, James, a cable splicer for Verizon, assists Bostic on the tree farm whenever possible.

Cherished Memories

It is the small moments, however seemingly insignificant at the time, that later become heartwarming, cherished memories. Oftentimes, these memories can powerfully describe a relationship. One such memory for Bostic was when she and her father would spend many quiet evenings together on the front porch. He sat in his rocking chair with her in his lap as, together, they would sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Bostic affectionately recalls, "In the summer, we would listen to the whippoorwill and mock him to see if he would answer. This was done each night, weather permitting, right up until the night before he went to the hospital for surgery." Bostic was 19 years old when her father died. "That was our time together and sometimes Mama would join us," she adds.

On the day of Sublett’s surgery in 1988, relatives were allowed in the room to see him a few at a time. "At 3 p.m. I went in to see him. He was unconscious, but the nurse said to talk to him because he could hear us. As I stood there, holding his hand and talking to him, I had tears in my eyes. The nurse said, ‘You must be the baby,’ and I said, ‘yes, I am.’ Then Daddy gently squeezed my hand. This was the last contact I had with him. But he knew I was there, along with the rest of the family," Bostic remembers, adding, "We all miss him so much!"

After her father’s unexpected death, Bostic was distraught for several years. Her father had played a monumental role in her life and his sudden absence severely affected her and those who loved him. "I was really close to my dad and so it devastated me when he wasn’t here anymore. When you’re 19, you think your dad’s going to be around for a long time and tell you what to do. It’s not really when you want to be on your own. I just wish he was here. I wish he could come back for one day. He would be really proud that we actually won the competition," says Bostic.

In an attempt to separate herself from the memories associated with the tree farm her father had loved, Bostic moved to Salem in 1990 and became a Roanoke City police officer. Reflecting back, Bostic says she enjoyed her law enforcement job during that period. Three years later, Bostic’s mother, Erma Sublett, found that managing the farm was becoming more difficult. Soon after, co-ownership of Joe’s Trees was given to Bostic, who was ready to devote her time and energy to not only carrying on her father’s legacy, but also doing something she enjoyed for a living.

Bostic was entering a growing industry with a bright future. According to the VCTGA, the Virginia Christmas tree industry has grown in response to consumer demand for fresh, local trees and now contributes approximately $34 million annually to the state’s economy. An estimated 1.7 million Virginia-grown Christmas trees are sold annually throughout the United States.

The farm, now a 100,000-tree farm, has both a choose-and-cut operation and a wholesale business selling trees throughout Virginia. In addition to concolor firs, Joe’s Trees grows Fraser and Douglas firs, white and Scotch pines, Canaan and balsam firs, and blue spruces. In addition to Bostic, Joe’s Trees employs one other full-time person April through December. During the holidays, Bostic brings up to 15 part-time employees on board for help.

The tree farm continues for miles, in some areas as far as the eye can see, with Fraser and Douglas firs, white and Scotch pines, and blue spuces of every shape and size.

Joe’s Trees also boasts a wreath shop that is one of the largest wholesale suppliers in the state. Sue Huffman, wreath shop manager, has won several awards for her intricately decorated and undecorated wreaths. In 1999, one of her decorated wreaths captured top honors in the decorated wreath category of VCTGA’s annual competition and was named the Grand Champion decorated wreath for 1999. "When we started making wreaths, we sold a few hundred. Now our sales are in the thousands, thanks to Sue Huffman. You will not find one anywhere in the state or out of the state made with the same quality as she makes hers," Bostic notes.

Also in the wreath department: Joe’s Trees is promoting a new program this year called Send-A-Wreath. This program allows you to send a unique gift to distant family, friends, or employees to help brighten their holidays. For each wreath purchased from Joe’s Trees during the Christmas season, Joe’s Trees will plant a seedling in the person’s honor. The beautiful wreaths are sure to add a special touch to any holiday festivity.

The ‘Charlie Brown’ Tree

Amidst holiday excitement, shoppers scramble to find the perfect Christmas tree for their family. Although the perfect Christmas tree varies from family to family, the most popular species of tree this year is the Fraser fir, which has short, soft needles in a deep green color, according to Bostic. "Most people want a full tree, but the perfect Christmas tree for me is one that has a few openings and strong limbs to hang my heavy ornaments," Bostic explains.

Despite her description of the perfect tree, Bostic oftentimes ends up with the ugliest tree in the bunch, the one all other shoppers passed over. According to Bostic, her father would always wait until Christmas Eve to put up the family Christmas tree, and it would always be the tree that didn’t sell – the "Charlie Brown tree." Despite her determination to one day be able to bring home the best tree in the lot and elaborately decorate it with her growing collection of red and gold ornaments, Bostic finds she has unintentionally followed in her father’s footsteps. Her choice of trees in past years have included a tree run over by a truck and a tree with a hole in the side.

Older Than Christianity

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, "the tree, used as a symbol of life, is a tradition older than Christianity and not exclusive to any one religion. It’s a part of our holiday customs that not only engages our sense of sight, touch and smell, but also our sense of tradition, hope, and good will."

Sue Huffman, wreath shop manager entered two wreaths in the undecorated and decorated wreath category of the VCTGA's competition in 1999. Both of her wreaths were named Grand Champion by the panel of judges.

The first recorded reference to the Christmas tree dates back to the 16th century. In Strasbourg, Germany, families decorated fir trees with fruits, colored paper and sweets. In the 12th century, the evergreen tree was being hung upside-down from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity. The first German immigrants to the United States brought with them the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas. From there, the trees continued to grow in popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries. The White House Christmas tree tradition was initiated by Franklin Pierce, our 14th president.

The Christmas tree, a showcase of ornaments highlighting precious family memories, is the centerpiece of holiday gatherings. With the warmth from a crackling fire, families and friends gather around the tree to enjoy holiday treats and celebrate peace, hope and good will. On Christmas morning, excited children rush downstairs to discover brightly wrapped packages hidden beneath the glowing tree, adorned with everything from silver tinsel to handmade bows. However, when the last Christmas tree is hauled to the dump or burned in a compost pile, and all the precious ornaments are tucked in boxes and stored away until next Christmas, the work of the Christmas tree farmer continues full force in preparation for the following year.

Always Something to Do

"As a tree farmer, there’s something to do in the field every month and every week, unless, of course, you have bad weather," Bostic explains. She puts into practice the valuable planting and growing techniques she learned from her father. In late February, weather permitting, she sprays herbicides for grass and weeds. In March and April, the trees are planted. In May, it’s time to fertilize and start mowing as the grass begins to grow. June marks the time to shear (cutting branches to give the tree a desirable "upside-down cone" shape) the trees and watch for insects. If insects are a problem, Bostic sprays the appropriate pesticides. In July, she tags the trees and divides them into categories based on species, height and quality of the tree. When fall arrives, Bostic puts nitrogen down on the marketable trees in order to achieve a greener color. White and Scotch pines are color-enhanced in order to get a deeper green. And then comes the busiest month of the year, December, when shoppers wind their way through the fields in search of the perfect tree. During December, Bostic focuses on making sure the trees on the outskirts of the farm are trimmed and attractive for curious passersby.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, Christmas trees can take from four years to 16 years to mature. During the time a Christmas tree is developing into a well-shaped six- to eight-foot tree, it faces many hazards. Trees can suffer from too little or too much sun or rain; destruction by rodents, insects, disease, hail or fire; or overgrowth from bushes, vines and weeds. Christmas trees are pruned annually. By holding back rapid upward growth, the grower can encourage the tree to branch more quickly, and gradually achieve the full bushy appearance consumers look for in a Christmas tree.

For More Information

If you’re interested in
learning more about
Joe’s Trees, please contact
them at (540) 544-7303
or toll-free at (866) 544-TREE.

What makes Sue Bostic wake up every morning and devote her days to growing Christmas trees and managing the farm —besides carrying on her father’s legacy? "The most rewarding part of the Christmas tree business for me is seeing the same customers every year. I look forward to that. They change and their kids are growing — and it’s just a lot of fun," she reveals.

It was a cold, blustery afternoon in March and a typical day working out in the field. Bostic was helping her mother and father plant Christmas trees, a process that usually involved teamwork. As she fondly recalls, "Daddy used to put them [the trees] in a coffee can as a small seedling and then water them for a year. We were transferring them from the cans that day. I got aggravated and sat down and told him that I didn’t want to help anymore. He said that was fine and that I could sit there, but couldn’t go back to the house until the work was done. That’s the way he taught us growing up. If you work together, it’ll get done quicker."

In loving memory of her father, each year on his birthday, Dec. 12, Bostic holds a Christmas-tree lighting in his honor. As the Christmas tree is lit, brilliantly glowing in the dark, Joe Sublett’s family and friends gather in front of Joe’s Trees to remember the gentle man who impacted their lives in such a memorable way.

Standing in the cold, this year Bostic will quietly remember her father and how he contributed so much to her current success. In past years, more than 80 people have showed up at the lighting to pay tribute to the man who, as described by Erma Sublett, his wife, "loved nature and life, was energetic, and was not afraid to take chances." Bostic’s sister, Sonja Sublett Switzer, says, "He always stressed doing your best and taking pride in your work. He was a teacher of things you could never learn in school."

With inspiration and successful teaching from her father, both on the field and off, Bostic’s success in the Christmas tree industry won’t stop here. If she continues to follow in her father’s footsteps and produce top-quality trees, Bostic may one day realize her dream to have a Christmas tree in the White House, standing tall and representing Virginia — and her father.


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