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The Life Of A Christmas Tree Farmer

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Mike Tabor has made his living farming and selling Christmas trees in the Washington, D.C. area.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Mike Tabor has made his living farming and selling Christmas trees in the Washington, D.C. area.

At a small but bustling farmers market in Columbia Heights, organic farmer Mike Tabor is selling a number of goodies: apples, apple pear cider, pies, and of course, Christmas trees.

Tabor didn't set out to become farmer. In fact, Tabor grew up in a low-income housing project in Brooklyn - nowhere near a farm. He received his master's degree in anthropology, and came to Washington, D.C. in the '60s to look for a job in the public school system.

"I remember the assistant superintendents who interviewed me in Washington asked where would I like to teach, and I said, 'well, Anacostia or Northeast.' And they said, 'Mr. Tabor, you've almost got a Ph.D.,'" recalled Tabor.

He was advised to teach in upper Northwest, D.C. After the interviews, he decided the education field wasn't for him, and eventually got into the farming industry. He's been working as farmer for 32 years now.

Raising sustainable Christmas trees

Tabor works six days a week, and starts his workday at 4 a.m. He says Christmas trees are one of his most important crops, but his are not the typical Christmas trees. Tabor says most trees are painted, but not his. The National Christmas Tree Association says the color acts as sunscreen to keep the needles from naturally bleaching during the late summer.

"So these trees are trees that are different colors, somewhat rustic, less pruned than a lot of trees would be, a little more forest-like but still they're nice trees," he says.

Tabor says the typical, perfectly pruned tree is forcing nature to imitate plastic, which is not what he is about. Tabor sells 'sustainably raised trees,' meaning he doesn't use any pesticides, and there's no artificial coloring.

Economic challenges in sustainability

Tabor says these days he just about breaks even, and he's kind of an iconoclast when it comes to making a profit. He makes a point of keeping his prices low.

"It's a high lofty ideal that keeps on coming back to haunt us when we're short of money," he says. "I once got up in front of a conference of sustainable growers. Part of the talk I gave was that if all we're doing is raising food for the wealthy... if we're not selling to all income groups, there's a question about our purpose and our work and how much it's worth it to give up another lifestyle by not making our produce affordable. And it got a lot of boos, and a lot of people sharply disagreed."

As Tabor speaks, he spots an old man pocket an organic brownie from his stand and hobble off.

"If it helped that guy to take that dessert, that's fine," says Tabor.

It entails some sacrifices to be sustainable. Tabor says if he pushed his trees with fertilizer and pesticides, he could grow them in about 8 years, but he doesn't, so his trees take 20 years to grow. That extra time and effort is worth it, he says.

"My daughter gave me a sign where she quoted from the Talmud," says Tabor. "It says 'I have not wasted my day,' so that message is very important to me. What have I done, who have I helped."

Tabor says it's a message that fits well with the Christmas season.

[Music: "Rockin Around the Christmas Tree" by She & Him from A Very She & Him Christmas]

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