Nestled just off 39 Avenue, on a wide slab of land, dwells some of the most iconic emblems of Christmas spirit. Most people might not even notice the 12-foot-tall sign that reads Unicorn Hill Farm. But, down the dirt path, through the iron wrought gate, past the Christmas trees and over the perfectly measured pathway, leads straight to the Gregorys’ front door.
John and Cathryn Gregory are not your average farmers. They own 14 acres of land, six of which are covered by Christmas trees. But that wasn’t their original plan when they bought the property in 1977.
“We knew we were going to have to do something that would make it pay for itself,” Cathryn said.
A student who was getting his masters in architecture landscaping at the University of Florida chose their property for his thesis. He did extensive research on the soil and climate, determining what they could successfully grow.
“We wanted to grow blueberries,” John said. “However, blueberries will not live out here.”
The graduate student came up with a plan that would grow Christmas trees and the Gregorys loved it. They planted their very first tree in January of 1980.
Along with their Christmas tree venture, the farmers worked as teachers. Cathryn, a former high school Spanish and Russian teacher, said she is “always interested in where people come from and their families.” She decided to learn Russian after her grandfather passed away. All he left the family were letters written in Russian, which none of them could read. She then made it her personal mission to learn the language.
John, who was a mathematics professor at UF, taught math education to students who also desired to teach math. He has written numerous publications on mathematics instruction for high school and still does presentations at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics today. Now retired, he mostly works on his farm, but he does continue to teach his grandchildren.
“What’s interesting is that all three of them love math,” Cathryn said of their grandchildren, who often visit the farm when the season starts and extra hands are needed on deck.
Depending on the time of the year, John trims all of the trees and mows the grass. Cathryn’s job is to make sure no weeds are growing in between the rows of trees, which she prevents by spraying herbicide near the base of the trees.
“We make sure to mark the one’s we wish to sell for the year and keep the ones that need to keep growing,” she explained.
On the first of every December, the couple begins selling the trees they tend to year round. All of the tree types – Carolina Sapphire, Blue Ice, Virginia Pine, Burkii Cedar, Spruce Pine, Leyland Cypress, Sand Pine and Southern Red Cedar – sell out each year.
The tree’s fan base actually extends beyond the human visitors. The Leyland Cypress is quite popular with the deer that come around the edges of their property. They like to use the small width of the Christmas tree trunks to scratch in between their antlers, which unfortunately ruins the bark of the tree.
In addition to the deer visitors, possums, raccoons, bobcats, a flock of turkey and other wildlife roam the trees. While the animals prevent the farmers from planting the higher quality trees close to the property’s edge, children come back to tell the couple of all the wildlife they encounter when they visit with their families to pick out a tree.
The families, especially the children, who visit serve as a motivation for the couple to continue nurturing the trees year after year.
“We both feel that in society today, many kids don’t have a connection with where their food comes from. They think, ‘Oh it comes from Publix, it comes in a can,’” Cathryn said.
When families come out to the farm to select a tree, the children are able to see various stages of growth. The selection process allows them to handpick which tree they like, as they are able to witness it coming straight out of the ground.
The Gregorys see this age-old tradition of bringing families out to choose a Christmas tree as a way to keep the holiday experience alive, while getting the families together as the children play outside—even for a moment. John said he and Cathryn like to let the children run through their farm, learn about the farming and enjoy the process of picking out a special tree each year.
“We don’t just sell trees, we sell an experience.”