Down but not out

Fish River Christmas Tree farm owner still optimistic he will open on time after storms


SUMMERDALE, Alabama — After suffering a one-two punch of damage from Hurricane Sally and Hurricane Zeta, Steve Mannhard remains optimistic that he will be able to open for business at Fish River Christmas Tree Farm in Summerdale on time.

“We’re determined to open on time,” said Mannhard, who has operated the business on Woodhaven Dairy Road East with his wife Sandra for nearly 40 years. “You just can’t stop, you have to keep working. If you give up, you’re lost and I’m not ready to do that yet.”

Following Hurricane Sally, nearly all of the Mannhards’ 20,000 trees were toppled over by the storm, so he went out and hired some extra help and began working to prop the trees back up.

“Some of them we were able to stand back up without any problems,” he said. “Others we had to build a special apparatus to prop them back up.”

While Mannhard said nearly all of his “giant” trees, those over 15 feet tall, were lost following the September storm, he remained focused on saving the small to mid-sized trees, those in the 6- to 11-foot range.

“It’s been a real chore trying to get all of the trees propped back up, but we’re working hard and we think right now we’ll be able to open on time,” Mannhard said in an interview on Oct. 27. “I think we’ve been able to save and some that had needles stripped off are already starting to grow back out. You can tell something happened to them, but I think they’re going to be OK.”

But at the time, he did not know the affect that Hurricane Zeta would have as the storm barreled toward the Gulf Coast in the afternoon and evening hours of Oct. 28.

The next day, Mannhard and his crew, which that day consisted of just two, Ismael Pruitt and Jeffrey Thumser, were back out propping up trees.

“A lot of these trees we’re propping up today were ones that we had already propped up after Sally,” Mannhard said. Overall Mannhard estimates he has so far lost about 10 percent of his overall crop, about 2,000 trees, but is unsure of the long-term effects caused by the two storms.

“The smaller the tree the more likely it will be to survive long-term,” he said. “If we can sell a good many of (the larger tres) this year, I think we’re going to be OK, but after that I just don’t know. It certainly cannot be good for the trees to be uprooted and have to be put back upright multiple times.”

Mannhard and his crew plan to keep working right up until the scheduled opening to the public on the day after Thanksgiving, which falls this year on Nov. 27, and said he hopes restrictions from the Coronavirus will not provide a third punch to his business.

“It’s going to be different, but we’re still planning to open,” he said. He and his wife always plan special events geared toward families surrounding Christmas tree season, which runs right up until Christmas Eve.

“We’re still going to have a Santa, but he will be wearing a mask and kids won’t be allowed to sit on his lap,” Mannhard said. “We’re largely an outdoor business so I’m hoping that will help us. It’s about like anything else in this day and age, you do what you have to do to keep going.”