When I bought a Christmas tree at Lazy Lay Acres in Pasco County on Sunday, I not only got the expected benefits of shopping at a locally owned business — courtesy, service, the warm glow of handing money over to a neighbor rather than a distant corporation — I also got more bang (way, way more it turned out) for my buck.
The Lowe's in Spring Hill charges $34.97 for a 7-foot Fraser fir. Not bad. In fact, the buying power of big-box hardware stores has brought down the price of trees in recent years, said Jewel A. Lay, 74, and cut deeply into business at his farm off Saint Joe Road.
A decade ago, lines of waiting cars often stretched a quarter-mile down his sandy driveway; on Sunday there was no line, and it was Lay and his crew who waited for customers.
But I paid $65 for a tree that was conservatively measured at 14 feet — less than twice the price of the Lowe's fir for a tree more than twice as tall. And with five or maybe even 10 times the mass.
The Lowe's tree I could pick up with one hand.
I needed, on the other hand, the help of three workers to cut down the Lazy Lay tree and load it on a trailer pulled by a utility cart. They used a hydraulic lift on the front of a John Deere tractor to unload it; they drew it through a circle of plastic netting, encasing it like a giant sausage, with a winch mounted on a four-wheeler.
When Lay's daughter, Leslee Rose, 49, started taking pictures, I realized I was like a fisherman who had returned to the dock with a 200-pound tarpon. A spectacle. Yes, she said, it was the biggest one they'd sold all season.
Which is when I started to think: Maybe too big.
I'd wanted a tree tall enough to fill our house's two-story entrance and had bought big cedars at Lazy Lay in previous years.
But, looking back, I realized they were probably more like 12 feet than 15.
They did not dwarf my Ford Focus to the point where — to stay with the sausage comparison — it resembled the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. The weight of the previous trees didn't push the wheel wells down over the top of the tires. My sons were never quite as amazed by their size.
"Oh, my God," my oldest one said on Sunday. "That tree is a beast!"
Yes, that is exactly what it is.
At home, I whittled the trunk with a chain saw to fit it into the stand. My wife, two sons, father-in-law and I, helped by a teenage neighbor, worked like the flag-raisers on Iwo Jima to stand the tree upright — only to watch the legs of the stand collapse and the tree slump against the stairway.
It has been there ever since, imposing on our lives like a giant, sleeping bear.
We walk sideways up the stairs to avoid the branches that jut through the banister spindles, and we hug the walls of the entryway to pass from the kitchen to the living room. I feel twinges of guilt anticipating the tragic waste that usually comes from trying to tame something wild and magnificent.
That, partly, has kept me from taking the obvious remedy: cutting 3 or 4 feet from the base. Also, I hate to remove what I've paid for; $65 for a 12-foot tree wouldn't be quite such a great bargain.
But if I do, eventually, take this option, I'll still have the previously mentioned benefits of doing business with a local.
The trip to Lazy Lay — and, often, to refuel afterward at Pancho Villa's Mexican restaurant in San Antonio — has created a family Christmas tradition, never easy in Florida. The cedars or sand pines we cut, likewise, connect this Northern holiday to the South.
For the price of the tree, you also get access to the petting zoo at Lazy Lay, which my middle school kids still love, and the run of about 60 acres of farmland. My sons and their friend spent most of the time Sunday pelting one another with undersized, volunteer watermelons they picked from one of the Lay's fields.
Lay and his crew, "all of them family or friends," didn't seem to mind at all.
Try that in the parking lot at Lowe's.