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¡Feliz Navidad!

An acre, a dream and a Horatio Alger story for the holidays

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Buca, the master tractor driver, sits helplessly at the helm of his Kubota, its huge wheels spinning themselves deeper and deeper into the damp earth. I've seen him behind the wheel of a Bobcat, twirling and swerving gracefully among perfect rows of valuable evergreens, like a ballet-dancing bull in a china shop. At the moment, though, Buca and this Kubota are no match for the force of gravity.

The tractor is towing a flatbed trailer stacked with a few dozen of North Carolina's finest Fraser fir Christmas trees, among nearly five million sold from this state every year. Buca, Gerónimo and their four-man crew spent all morning shouldering the trees up a 60-degree slope to a tractor path carved into the side of a mountain. Parallel to the New River far below, the path that cuts across the mountain is level for about 50 yards, but the last 20 climb at a 45-degree incline. Between the weight of the cargo and the pitch of the path, the tractor is stuck.

The last time I saw a tractor try to climb a slope like this, it was springtime and I was sitting in a tree-planting contraption rigged to the back of the vehicle. The driver that day, Buca's brother-in-law Lucio, smiled mischievously and asked if I knew how to pray. At the steepest part of the hill, I was practically lying on my back, my feet above my head, trying to stick Fraser fir seedlings in the freshly tilled soil at regular intervals. I imagined what the giant steel hoe beneath our feet would do to me if I were to fall out. The tractor couldn't make it up the hill on that spring day, and this tractor isn't making it up now.

At the head of the trail, 150 grown trees are waiting for baling and loading. A hundred more still need to ride the guys' shoulders up to the baling zone. Still another hundred need to be cut and carried from the top side, above the path and below Buca's neat, gray mobile home, which is perched atop a grassy ridge overlooking the river valley.

Buca and Gerónimo spent most of November cutting and loading Christmas trees for their respective employers for $10 or $12 an hour. Today, on this Saturday following Thanksgiving, after more than a decade working as field hands in the North Carolina Christmas-tree industry, Buca and Gerónimo are harvesting the first 400 of their own Fraser firs. They planted them together on Buca's one acre of land in the spring of 1998. They'll each clear about $3,000 from this crop, which may not sound like much, but it's 10 to 15 percent of their annual incomes and might be enough to get them through a workless winter without going into debt.

Thousands of immigrant workers energize the state's Christmas-tree industry, which generates $100 million in revenue every year. The typical worker makes $6 to $9 an hour and finds work elsewhere during the off season.

"Living here, I haven't made much from working," Gerónimo has told me. "After many years, when the trees grow and they sell, it's good money."

Between them, these guys have almost 30,000 trees in the ground, most through partnerships with landowners who let them use their fields in exchange for half the profits. As the trees mature over the next several years, they expect to net about $7 per tree for themselves, after they buy pesticides and fertilizer and pay some guys to help them carry the trees out of the mountain fields.

Easier said than done.

On this afternoon, it's already 2pm and the guys have been at it since 7am. The harvesting of Buca's field has been postponed multiple times in the past month because his boss, who is buying the trees wholesale for about $20 each, had too much work of his own (about 40,000 trees to cut this year) to let one of his best workers loose. On Thanksgiving (El Día de Gracias), Buca worked most of the day harvesting trees for his boss; then he and Gerónimo spent a couple of hours cutting 300 of their own trees with chainsaws in the lower field, letting the trees lie until the two could find some help.

Buca, a 35-year-old with a chubby baby face matured only by his moustache, had planned to hire some of his co-workers to help him harvest his trees, but his boss couldn't let them go today. Like many of the large-scale growers do, Buca and Gerónimo put out the word among the local Hispanic community -- 3,000 strong during the harvest season -- and found four construction workers who have today off because work is slowing down for the winter. Buca and Gerónimo haven't had a day off since early November. They intended to harvest their trees on Sunday but a rainy forecast moved it up a day.

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