Around Selma, this tradition often becomes a family outing to Stephens Christmas Tree Forest. A child’s fantasyland of cypress and cedar, the farm is just 15 miles from town along a winding, wooded road.
Boughs of Carolina Sapphire and Blue Pyramid steep with fragrance that only live greenery can give, and the temptation to cut a tree that’s too tall for the ceiling is…hmmm… overwhelming!Check Stephens, the Christmas Tree Man, is well known. His trees have not only sheltered gifts in our homes but created majesty at the state capitol and governor’s mansion. Active in civic clubs, church, the Army Reserve, politics and agriculture, many honors have come Stephens’ way.
But there is one thing that a lot of his customers don’t know. The gentleman who grows their trees also pioneered the industry that brings pond-raised catfish to their plates!
Stephens resided in Greensboro and was selling feed for Ralston-Purina back in 1960 when he and a company scientist had a chance meeting with a local dairy farmer. The farmer mentioned a fish kill in his bass pond and asked the specialist for advice about restocking.
“Stock it with catfish!” was the reply. But no one had fingerlings for stock. That’s when Stephens and the farmer, Richard True of Newbern, “decided that since nobody was hatching them, we’d start!”
They formed a corporation with another dairy farmer and began hatching fingerlings and stocking ponds. As the fish grew, they needed processing. So a few more people joined their effort, and Alabama’s first catfish processing company was born.
By the new Millennium, Alabama had nearly 25,000 acres of food-fish ponds and catfish sales of more than $80 million, most of it in the Black Belt.
Stephens later moved to Autauga County where he groomed his Christmas tree farm and continued growing fingerlings. Now, at 86, he declares the time has come to “hang up” the catfish operation. But this former Army colonel can never quit anything…perhaps just retire it.
Photograph: Check Stephens at his Christmas Tree farm