Clarke Gernon has seen multiple generations return as customers during the 35 years he's been growing Christmas trees at Shady Pond Farm near Pearl River, but he's also seen another kind of return visitor: vandals out to destroy his trees.
Over the years, he said, the tree farm has been hit about 20 times by vandals, although no one has ever been arrested. Now, about three years after the last wave of vandalism, it's happened again. Sometime over the Labor Day weekend, nine Carolina Sapphire cypress trees were destroyed by vandals who broke their trunks.
The 3-year-old trees would have been harvested this year, he said, and amounted to an $855 loss.
But for Gernon, the crime doesn't only cut financially. The perpetrators are destroying a living thing, he said. To him, that's just one step removed from harming an animal.
"They are taking one of God's creations and just destroying it," he said. He also sees the act as an expression of contempt for Christmas, and Christmas is serious business to the tree grower.
Gernon thinks he's selling more than trees. His customers come to his 50-acre farm for the experience, he said, and to continue a holiday tradition.
"I'm very sensitive to all of it, the entire aspect of Christmas," he said. "Many other farms, it's just, 'Here's the tree, give me the money.' "
That's part of the reason he believes his farm has endured while others haven't.
When he was president of the regional Christmas tree growers association the first time, in 1985, there were 600 tree farms in Louisiana and Mississippi. When he was president again in 2000, that number had dwindled to 60.
The Carolina Sapphire, so named because it has a bluish cast, is a unique tree that produces small yellow blooms that smell of mint and lemon rather than the more typical aroma associated with Christmas trees, he said. "It's like a 7-foot-tall bowl of potpourri," he said of the trees, which he sells for $95 each.
But the damage could mount. The last time vandals hit the farm, he said, they destroyed 50 trees before they stopped.
He's worried they will return. That was the pattern before, he said. He thinks that each time his business has been targeted, teenagers have been responsible. He doesn't know who they are or exactly where they live, but he suspects it's within bicycling distance of the farm.
Catching the perpetrators is hard in a rural area where there are few people and no surveillance cameras keeping watch, he said.
Gernon said he's reported the vandalism to the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office, "but it's difficult getting (law enforcement) away from the idea that it's just a tree," he said.
This time around, he said, he wants to get the word out so people will be more aware and watchful.
"We need eyes, a whole lot of eyes, looking," he said.