Rainy start has not slowed crowds to Christmas tree farms

Issue Date: December 11, 2019
By Ching Lee
California choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms such as Indian Rock Tree Farm in El Dorado County, say sales and traffic to their farms remain brisk, despite recent rainy weather.
Photo/Ching Lee

Despite a soggy start, farmers who operate choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms say sales remain brisk, with shoppers taking advantage of breaks in the rain or braving wet and muddy conditions to visit their farms and partake in what has become a yearly tradition for many families.

Keith Garlock of Garlock Christmas Tree Farm in Sonoma County described his opening day on the day after Thanksgiving as "a barn buster," even though typical traffic to his farm tends to be slower on Black Friday.

"It was a near record day for us, which is almost unheard of on the day after Thanksgiving," he said.

He credited a rainy weather forecast for the larger crowds, as it motivated people to come out and buy their trees ahead of the storms. Also, with Thanksgiving being later this year, "people were already in the mood to put their tree up," Garlock added.

Even though sales were off by about 30% on the days that did rain, he said the robust start made up for the difference.

Reports of a nationwide shortage of Christmas trees also may have encouraged shoppers to get a head start, he said, so that they could have their first pick of trees. The shortage, which has been a problem the last few years, relates more to farms that produce trees for wholesale rather than choose-and-cut operations, he said, though he noted he planted more trees last January in response to the tighter supply. Most of the state's choose-and-cut farms also sell precut trees from states such as Oregon and Washington, but Garlock said his longstanding relationship with his supplier allowed him to get "exactly what I ordered."

Jeri Seifert, who runs Silveyville Christmas Tree Farm in Solano County with her husband Ted, said the tree scarcity will probably continue for another year or two, as it takes 10 to 12 years to grow Christmas trees to a marketable size—particularly certain species such as silver tips, also known as red firs. As a large retailer, Seifert said she was able to get all the trees she wanted from her supplier, but noted that some smaller and newer farms did not.

"We hope that's going to slowly be turned around in the next five years," she said. "And then of course at some point, there'll be a glut on the market again."

Prices of trees may not ever come back to where they were before the shortage, Seifert said, noting that wholesalers have raised prices 15% to 20% during the last four years. Though she's tried to absorb some of that cost, she said she had to raise her prices 4% this year.

Most of her customers understand why prices are increasing, she said, as minimum wages and other production costs have gone up. What keeps people coming back, aside from the "fresh and beautiful trees," she said, is the experience the farm offers, with its animals, sleigh rides, play areas, gift shop and other activities.

Geri Hyder of Indian Rock Tree Farm in El Dorado County sells only trees grown on the farm, which she said does not face a shortage because of how the farm manages its inventory and how the trees are cut. She allows only her employees to do the cutting, to ensure the stumps will grow back rather than replanting new trees. When there's a tight supply of taller trees, she said, customers often cut shorter trees too close to the ground, effectively killing them.

California choose-and-cut farms may be maintaining their usual supply of trees, but there are increasingly fewer farms left, Seifert said. As president of the California Christmas Tree Association, she noted the number of farms in the state has shrunk by nearly 50% in the last five years, with farms closing due to lack of profitability, farmer retirement and, in recent years, destruction from wildfires.

Loss of market share to artificial trees continues to be a major concern, Garlock said, although noting that during the last three years U.S. growers have tried to reverse this trend through a checkoff program to promote real Christmas trees.

Americans bought 32.8 million real Christmas trees in 2018, up from 27.4 million in 2017, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Purchases of artificial trees also increased—from 21.1 million in 2017 to 23.6 million in 2018.

Ted Seifert said it's been difficult to attract young and new farmers into the business because of the high cost of land and the long growth period of the trees.

"It cannot be a primary business for someone, because it takes four to five years to get started," he said. "It has to be something where the person has a secondary or primary income, loves agriculture and wants to enjoy people."

As a "city girl" with no farming background, Laurie Hay of Hay Family Farms in Stanislaus County acknowledged she "didn't have a clue" about the business when she and her husband John decided to purchase a 6-1/2 acre Christmas tree farm three years ago.

"It's not something that there's somebody right next door that you can ask, 'Hey, how do you be a Christmas tree farmer?' like there are with some other crops," she said. "When we first bought the farm, I thought, 'Christmas trees, you're only open for a little while at Christmastime and then they just grow by themselves.'"

She said she's looked to both the state and national Christmas tree associations as resources and has sought mentorship from more experienced farmers. Though the couple both have fulltime jobs now, Hay said she hopes to make Christmas tree farming fulltime someday.

"It's a tough industry to get into," she said. "You have to have a heart for doing it."

In addition to planting more trees every year—about 3,000 to bring it back to a "full forest"—Hay said she and her husband have had to steadily raise prices, as the previous owners kept them at lower-than-market rate. She said they've also "worked really hard" at building relationships with returning customers, explaining why the increases are necessary "to make this a sustainable business and operation for you and your family to enjoy for years." She said her customers by and large realize their prices are now comparable to what big-box stores are charging for trees.

Her goal, she said, is to expand the business into a full you-pick operation of not just Christmas trees but other tree crops and berries.

"It's about a whole experience for us as much as it is an experience for our clients," she said. "That's why we chose to get into it, and we really love it. We love being on the farm. We love sharing our farm with other people that come to see us."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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