Christmas trees are big business. Last year, consumers in the U.S. bought 27-million farm-grown Christmas trees that rang up nearly $1-billion at the cash register.
But Christmas trees are small business as well. It takes more than 15,000 Christmas-tree farms to produce that annual harvest, most of them small, family-owned businesses with longstanding ties to their land.
Though New England is usually what we associate with our Currier & Ives vision of Christmas trees, the leading producer is Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, followed by North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA).
Christmas-tree farms can run anywhere from 5 acres to hundreds of acres, Ricky Dungey, NCTA's public relations manager , told BusinessNewsDaily. (An acre is about the size of a football field). It takes the typical 6-to-7-foot tree five-to-eight years to mature.
That typical tree, though, is no longer typical, Dungey said. There's now a greater selection of sizes available, including 3-foot tabletop trees, "condo" trees that are 4-to-5-feet tall and skinny enough to fit in smaller spaces and "cathedral-size" trees suitable for display in the great rooms of McMansions. The busiest time for Christmas-tree sales is the first two weeks of December.
"Growers and retailers are starting to put more options out on the market," Dungey said."It brings in people who wouldn't have bought a live tree before."
We're also getting more finicky about the aesthetics of what is, after all, a natural product.
"Trees are the only crop sold to the final buyer 'as is,'" said Dungey.
But that doesn't stop growers from giving Mother Nature a helping hand. Christmas-tree farming is more complicated than just planting a seedling in the ground and circling back when it's the right size to cut down and turn into a Christmas tree.
Planting season for Christmas-tree seedlings runs from January through March, depending on the part of the country. Once the seedlings are established, they are sheared for shape once a year from midsummer through October until harvest, Dungey said, a manual-labor-intensive process that nips and snips them into the perfect cones consumers crave. Some trees need more help than others.
"Some trees don't know how to be a Christmas tree," said Steve Abel, a veterinarian whose second life is spent as head of Abel's Trees, where he grows some 30,000 Christmas trees on a 40-acre farm in New York State's Hudson River Valley and about 80 miles north of New York City.
Some trees can be trimmed in as little as 30 seconds, Abel said, but it takes more time to bring the unruly branches and bare spots of others under control.
"We've kind of copied that artificial look," said Fred Battenfeld, whose family has been growing and selling Christmas trees since the mid-'50s on 100 acres about 25 miles north of Abel's Trees. Christmas trees are not Battenfeld's only crop. The Battenfeld family has been growing flowers since 1906 and today is the largest grower of distinctive hybrid anemones in the United States.
"We used to be able to sell anything we grew," he said. "The more perfect the tree now, the easier it is to sell. Years ago we never pruned any trees until after the growing season."
Real Christmas trees outsell the artificial variety — most of which are made in China — by more than three to one, the NCTA said.
Farm-grown trees come two ways — pre-cut or cut your own. True Christmas-tree aficionados, like their locavore comrades, like to forage for their trees at the source. Their numbers are growing; 24 percent of farm-grown-Christmas-tree buyers last year took the cut-your-own route.
Both Abel and Battenfeld run cut-your-own-tree operations.
Battenfeld's father began planting Christmas trees in what had been an apple orchard in the '40s because of changing crop economics that made trees more lucrative than apples.
"At that time, cut your own tree was in its infancy," he said.
Abel, whose land has been in his family since the 1850s, sees cut-your-own as part of a growing interest in shared activities and creating family memories.
"People are going back to having a family tradition," he said.
"It's not so much about the product," said Battenfeld. "It's about the event. We've had the same people coming for 20 to 30 years—we're on the second and third generations with some families."
Running a cut-your-own farm calls for a lot of manual labor. It also involves crop planning and yield management.
"We plant new trees in existing fields where trees are cut," Abel said. "It's all done manually. And when it comes to trimming, it's very labor intensive."
"We try and plant every vacated area," said Battenfeld. "You have to have trees of all sizes coming along," he said. "Our cycle begins in early spring."
Battenfeld applies herbicide in the spring and mows between trees at least twice each summer.
Christmas-tree farming is not without its own hazards and challenges.
"The farmer has to be a soil scientist," said NCTA's Dungey. "He has to constantly check and monitor for insects and soil pathogens. It's even more difficult because you don't get an annual yield. Mother Nature is the number-one hazard."
Deer, in particular, are a nuisance. They like Christmas trees as much as we do. Marauding deer invaded one Christmas-tree farm in Iowa last year and nibbled up between 10,000-and-12,000 trees, worth an estimated $80,000.
There is also pressure on the land itself, particularly for farms that are within the orbit of large metropolitan areas such as New York City and became attractive for residential development.
The recession put the kibosh on the aggressive conversion of farmland into housing tracts in New York's Hudson River Valley, with raw land now going begging, Battenfeld said. But he's concerned about tomorrow and a way of life he'd like to keep in the family.
"As long as I can carve out a living, you'll never see houses here," he said. "I have my two children here. Hopefully, they'll be able to make a decent living too."
And there is the pleasure of the work itself.
"I like to work out of doors," Battenfeld said. "It's a very festive time of year and people are in a very good mood."
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Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.