Johnny Wishon didn’t grow up on a farm, but his father, a game warden, did. Wishon remembers, “We had a little over five acres of land, and my dad always had the biggest garden in the county. He would let me grow extra vegetables to sell to the local grocery store.” In high school he became involved in Vo-Ag, FFA, and agriculture classes, all of which steered him toward a farming career.
Majoring in agricultural education at North Carolina State University, Wishon spent summer breaks working on a local farmer’s Christmas tree farm and developed a passion for growing trees. After graduating in 1988, he started Wishon Evergreens, planting a few hundred trees on family land. It took ten years of working two jobs—as a tree farmer and as an agricultural science teacher at Alleghany High School—for Wishon to be able to farm full time.
Today he has three successful companies: Wishon Evergreens, wholesale Christmas tree and greenery products, Appalachian Produce Company, pumpkins and fall products, and the Christmas Tree Company, online Christmas tree and greenery sales. Websites for all three entities are important in attracting new customers, along with various social media outlets. Wishon Evergreens also exhibits at MANTS (Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show) each year in Baltimore. “This allows us to meet prospective customers,” Wishon says, “as well as visit and network with current customers.”
The Choose and Cut side of Wishon Evergreens takes place on weekends just after Thanksgiving until Christmas. Wishon says, “Our Facebook page gives folks who pick and purchase their trees from us the chance to post pictures of them doing so and again in their homes. This marketing effort has allowed us to gain 30 percent in growth the last couple of years. QR (Quick Response) codes on all of the tree tags take customers to our website and video via smartphone.”
He adds, “This is the fun season when we give hay wagon rides and hot cider to customers who come to our farm for their holiday trees, garlands, and wreaths. It’s a family adventure that’s rewarding and meaningful for us too because something we took years to nurture is now the centerpiece of their homes during Christmas.”
Cut Christmas tree varieties include Fraser Fir, Concolor Fir, Canaan Fir, White Pine, Colorado Blue Spruce, Black Hills (White) Spruce, and Norway Spruce. Balled and burlap (B&B) nursery stock are shipped directly from the farm in North Carolina during the spring and fall to garden centers and re-wholesale nurseries all across the east coast and Midwestern states. Landscaping varieties include all of the above as well as Serbian Spruce, Emerald Green Arborvitae, and Green Giant Arborvitae. Other holiday items made and sold are garland, wreaths, grave blankets, mailbox swags, mantle pieces, hearts, and crosses. Pine cones (West Coast Ponderosa pine cones) are sold by the bag or box.
The yields from these various enterprises are impressive. Fraser Fir Christmas trees: 420 acres with a yield per acre of 1500 trees; White Pine Christmas Trees: 20 acres with a yield per acre of 1500 trees; Spruce Christmas Trees: 10 acres with a yield per acre of 1500 trees; Concolor Christmas Trees: 10 acres with a yield per acre of 1500 trees; and Pumpkins: 125 acres of with yield per acre of 42 bins. As to greenery products: 200,000 wreaths, 25,000 garlands, 1500 centerpieces, and 1000 fall wreaths. Total acres worked is 585 (445 rented and 140 owned).
To help make all this happen Wishon employs fifteen full-time H2A workers and hires another fifty around harvest time as field laborers along with an additional fifty wreath and garland makers contracted from local labor suppliers. Wishon’s two sons also pitch in as their schedules allow.
Oldest son, Brad, is a 2017 graduate of North Carolina State University with a degree in agri-business management. He currently works in technology development at Gregory Poole Caterpillar while keeping up with the family operation in anticipation of joining it full time in the next six months. Youngest son, Garrett, has finished his freshman year at UNC at Wilmington, majoring in communications. “Time will tell,” Wishon comments, “but I think Garrett’s communications major would be a great compliment to Brad’s business and production skills at Wishon Evergreens. I’m excited to have a second generation coming on board.”
Wishon met his wife, Linda, through a mutual friend when they were both attending different colleges. They’ve just celebrated their twenty-eighth wedding anniversary. Wishon says, “As an elementary school guidance counselor, it’s impossible for Linda to be involved in the day-to-day farm operations, but the farm wouldn’t exist without her. She has always been there to pick up my slack when I couldn’t be home in time to help the boys with their homework. She is a constant source of wisdom and support. Every successful farmer needs a rock at home, and she’s it for our family.”
Linda Wishon is also very involved in her church, Sparta United Methodist, and is the program coordinator for the Food Backpack program. She’s a member of the Delta Kappa Gamma teacher fraternity, the Character Education team, and is the Alleghany Schools counselor committee coordinator.
Though years of careful, strategic planning and hard work have certainly paid off, it hasn’t been without its challenges. Wishon recalls, “We took a major financial hit in 2007–8 when one of the people who bought a lot of trees from us failed to pay and went bankrupt. We lost over $300,000 but fought hard to stay afloat during one of the worst economic periods in our country’s history, accompanied by the lowest historical Christmas tree prices ever.”
After 2008 Wishon decided to take the trees they always had to burn at the end of rotation and turn them into cash. It was the beginning of their greenery business. He says, “At first we subcontracted with another grower to make wreaths for them, operating in a rented building. We also began making our own garland. So we eventually moved out of the rented building and purchased one in 2012. The greenery business now is approximately 20 percent of our wholesale business.” The building purchase also gave Wishon the ability to be in the pumpkin business, with warehouse space and room to operate the Christmas Tree Company, the online tree/wreath enterprise.
Between 2007–2017, Wishon’s farm recovered fully, expanded its customer base to over 150 wholesalers, and diversified its products. He adds, “A lot of times, good things will come from bad, and I try to remember this as obstacles arise.” Last year, an ice storm hit in the middle of tree harvest, shutting down the entire operation. “But we just persevered. That’s what you have to do when you’re dealing with recurring problems like bad weather, pests, deer, and fertility issues—things which all farmers have to cope with.”
To keep his companies healthy and ensure their future viability, Wishon employs environmentally sustainable practices and uses genetically improved seed/seedling production. He also implements Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices. With the aid of a computerized mapping system, crops on the Wishon acreage are scouted periodically and crew members are trained to spot any problems early on. They only use pesticides when necessary, and encourage beneficial insects to help control the “bad bugs.”
In the mountains there’s a need to maintain a low groundcover to prevent soil erosion and reduce soil temperatures for Fraser Firs. So Wishon sows natural Dutch White clover in his fields to choke out other weeds and to produce additional nitrogen. He uses the lowest possible rates of glyphosate that clover will tolerate.
Wishon is experiencing double-digit growth in pumpkin and tree sales annually, so he’s planning and planting for the future by building a new loading facility and will be the first tree farmer in NC to construct large acreage fencing (nine miles of 8′ tall woven wire fence) to keep out the biggest pest: deer.
Johnny Wishon likes to keep abreast of what’s going on in his industry. He’s a member of and holds positions in a number of professional organizations (too many to list here), that include being the chair of the Alleghany County Agriculture Committee, vice president of the Alleghany County Farm Bureau, a board member of the Alleghany County Hospital Foundation, finance committee chair of the Sparta United Methodist Church, and the committee chair of the North Carolina Farm Bureau Nursery/Greenhouse Advisory Committee, as well as a long-term member of the National Christmas Tree Association. Wishon is also a board member of his local electric co-op, Blue Ridge Energy.
When the Wishon family isn’t hard at their labors, they enjoy taking vacations together to North or South Carolina beaches, rivers, and lakes and to places like Yosemite and Muir Woods in California where Wishon can enjoy seeing “the really big trees.”
A life of diversified farming has taught Johnny Wishon this: “If you take care of your farm, your environment, your crops, they will take care of you. Being stewards of the land is a privilege as well as a responsibility. I hope that what we’re doing on our farm contributes to our overall purpose here on earth, which is to help each other.”
Johnny Wishon was nominated for North Carolina Farmer of the Year by Callie Birdsell Carson, Field Representative, North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. She says, “Johnny has such a unique operation as a sole proprietor, growing Christmas trees, pumpkins, gourds, and greenery. I’ve always found him to be a laid back, highly intelligent, well-respected man in the community who enjoys sharing his knowledge and love of agriculture with others. Growing half a million trees, he’s conscientious of the environment, innovative, and relatable. There’s more than one reason why people around here call him ‘Mr. Christmas.’”
As the North Carolina winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Wishon will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply. Wishon is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a tractor for a year from MF Product, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI, and a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute edition 22 rifle from Reinke Manufacturing Co., Inc., the irrigation company, through its partnership with Henry Repeating Arms.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 30th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from North Carolina include John Vollmer of Bunn, 1990; Kenneth Jones of Pink Hill, 1991; John Howard, Jr. of Deep Run, 1992; Carlyle Ferguson of Waynesville, 1993; Dick Tunnell of Swan Quarter, 1994; Allan Lee Baucom of Monroe, 1995; Scott Whitford of Grantsboro, 1996; Williams Covington, Sr. of Mebane, 1997; Phil McLain of Statesville, 1998; Earl Hendrix of Raeford, 1999; Reid Gray of Statesville, 2000; Rusty Cox of Monroe, 2001; Craven Register of Clinton, 2002; Frank Howey, Jr. of Monroe, 2003; Eddie Johnson of Elkin, 2004; Danny McConnell of Hendersonville, 2005; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2006; Bill Cameron of Raeford, 2007; V. Mac Baldwin of Yanceyville, 2008; Fred Pittillo of Hendersonville, 2009; Bo Stone of Rowland, 2010; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2011; Gary Blake of North Wilkesboro, 2012; Wilbur Earp of Winnabow, 2013; Frank Howey, Jr., of Monroe, 2014; Danny Kornegay of Princeton, 2015; Jerry Wyant of Vale, 2016; and Van Hemrick of Hamptonville, 2017; Howard Brown of Andrews, 2018.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Wishon Evergreens, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of August 5–9. The judges this year include Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, who was the overall winner of the award in 2009; John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; and David Wildey, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016.