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Shepherdstown farm to provide White House Christmas tree

August 26, 2009

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- In these dog days of summer, Eric and Gloria Sundback are already thinking Christmas -- one of their carefully bred Fraser firs will be displayed inside the White House this holiday season.

They were selected this month as grand champions of the National Christmas Tree contest at the National Christmas Tree Association's annual convention and trade show in Chattanooga, Tenn.

For the Sundbacks, it's their record fourth win. Their trees were displayed twice during the Ronald Reagan years and once under Jimmy Carter.

"It's a big deal," Eric Sundback said.

The tree that will head to the nation's capital remains on the Sundbacks' farm in Shepherdstown, W.Va. A team will choose from among several candidates and the winning selection must be 18 to 19 feet tall when fitted in the White House Blue Room. The Fraser fir that the couple brought to the convention was much smaller.

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The Sundbacks have grown Christmas trees since 1956, but they don't just stick a seedling in the ground and forget about it.

This is where science meets Santa.

"We originally couldn't find a tree that satisfied us, so we decided we'll grow some of our own and see what we can do," Gloria Sundback said.

With backgrounds in forestry, horticulture, landscape design and chemistry, the couple's trees are cultivated for several factors that include branch strength and better needle retention. Their pruning methods create a more open, uniform look and the couple says their trees decorate well because the ornaments have more room to dangle.

They've had to battle deer, drought and other sorts of weather curveballs. So it's a source of pride when the White House comes calling.

"You've been the nanny for the trees all these years, mowing around it and pruning it and make sure it's kept in good condition," Gloria Sundback said.

Now in their 80s, the couple maintains control of the seed orchard but has passed the retail side of their business to two veteran employees. The trees take a minimum of eight years to grow for sale to the public. The one going to the White House is a likely holdover.

"Nobody grows an 18-and-a-half foot Christmas tree on purpose," Eric Sundback said. "This one maybe was on a rock and we tried to dig it but we couldn't."

The Chesterfield, Mo.-based National Christmas Tree Association has presented the official White House tree since 1966. Association members compete in state and regional competitions to become eligible to take a tree to the national contest.

This is the second time a Fraser fir will be used from their farm. Douglas firs were used the other two times. The couple has also supplied Christmas trees for the homes of vice presidents.

"They treat you like you're a visiting foreign dignitary," Eric Sundback said. "They treat you like you're the head honcho. Meeting the first lady is always great. They're very personable. You're one-on-one for pretty near an hour."

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On the Net:

National Christmas Tree Association: http://www.christmastree.org

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