Boys Home of Virginia produces Christmas trees


The operation at the Boys Home of Virginia may be unique to the whole Christmas tree industry. Based in Alleghany County, Va., just outside of Covington, the private residential school for troubled boys uses its Christmas tree farm to help the boys who come there achieve success in life.
This year, its associate director, Greg Lemmer, is wearing a second hat.  He is president of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association.
“Our shining moment is the Christmas Tree Farm,” Lemmer is quoted as saying in the home’s literature. “The boys participate in everything we do up there, and that’s a matter of intense pride for me.”
The boys’ home operates on the belief that a successful man is respectful, wise, disciplined, curious and responsible.  Its staff strives to instill these characteristics in the boys who come there and finds the tree farm is an excellent tool for doing this.
Lemmer talked about his work at the home and its Christmas tree farm, which he manages, during a recent telephone interview. In addition to the tree farm, Lemmer oversees the operation of two other farms the home owns.
The retired Marine lieutenant colonel is a veteran of 22 years of service during the Vietnam and Desert Storm conflicts.  He learned about the Boys Home while working with the ROTC at Virginia Military Institute and decided that joining the staff there would be a good second career, he said.
Lemmer said the farm came to the home in 1994 as a bequest from the estate of Joanne Tannehill.  She had started the growing Christmas trees in 1960 and harvested her first crop in 1969, he reported.  She died in the mid-80s.
The Boys Home Christmas Tree Farm usually sells between 400 and 600 trees annually.  Both choose-your-own and wholesale marketing are used, he reported, with choose your own being the most popular way to sell the trees. The wholesale trees go to customers in the local area.
The boys at the home do all of the work on the farm, which is located in the very center of Augusta County, 2.5 miles west of Staunton. It is 68 miles from the home and surrounded on three sides by the George Washington National Forest.
Lemmer said he takes the boys to the farm on Saturdays to do maintenance.  In the summer they spend several days at the farm shearing, mowing and doing maintenance on the roads and buildings.  They do not do any spraying.
The farm primarily grows white pines and Norway spruces, Lemmer said. It has 18 acres in cultivation with a nine-year rotation.
The seedlings for the pines and spruces come from the Virginia Department of Forests Nursery at Waynesboro.  They also grew some Frasier firs and concolor firs.  These seedlings are purchased from a Pennsylvania nursery, he said.
Lemmer reported that they have not had as much success with the firs as with the pines and spruces. He said DOF was very helpful in getting the farm started.
Selling the Christmas trees is an exciting time for the boys at the home.  They are involved in the choose-and-cut sales as is age appropriate.  The home is licensed for boys from ages 6 to 18, so different jobs fall to different age groups.  The little boys are the greeters, offering customers coffee and cookies and helping them select the trees.  Their older peers cut the trees with bow saws, haul the trees to the shaker and shake the trees and prepare them for transport.  The oldest boys then load the trees on customers’ vehicles, making sure they are secure for the trip to their new homes.
In addition to the Christmas trees, the boys make wreaths and ropes to sell. They also sell crafts made as part of their school work in art class, Lemmer said.  The farm is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Thanksgiving until the Saturday or Sunday before Christmas depending on which day of the week is Christmas Day.  Lemmer said the boys work on the days they are not in school.
The home was founded in 1906 to serve boys having difficulties of one kind or another.  Those who “are on pace” attend the Alleghany public schools, he explained, but those who are not receive remedial education at the home.  He said the goal is to get each child back in public school.
Most of the boys are placed privately but the home will accept a placement from Social Services.  He said some stay a few weeks and some stay several years.
The Boys Home Tree Farm has been active in VCTGA for many years, Lemmer stated.  He has served on the board and was vice president for two years before becoming president.
He was pleased with the recent convention in Winchester.  He said VCTGA will be working on obtaining specialty grants to help its members with marketing in the coming year.