The debate over real versus artificial Christmas trees is an old one. But for those people who wouldn’t think of anything but a natural tree, the way to get the freshest tree possible while stimulating the local economy is buying locally from Christmas tree growers in Mississippi.
“By coming out and supporting local Christmas tree growers, you are guaranteeing yourself the freshest possible tree,” said Michael May, owner of Lazy Acres Christmas Tree Farm in Chunky and vice president of the Louisiana-Mississippi Christmas Tree Association. “I won’t say that you won’t have any needles in the carpet. But here every tree goes through a shaking machine that shakes out a lot of the needles that naturally shed.”
Besides dropping fewer needles on the carpet, fresh trees are less of a fire hazard. They are a good alternative to the Christmas tree lots that sell trees from northern states that have been cut down weeks earlier.
Another advantage of buying a tree from a local grower is that a trip to a Christmas tree farm can be an enjoyable family tradition. At Lazy Acres, customers pick their tree and then ride on a tractor-drawn sleigh to transport the tree back to their vehicle. And before they leave, most people take the time to enjoy seeing live reindeer up close.
“We do everything we can to provide a quality product and great entertainment,” May said.
This year about 1,000 school children have toured the Lazy Acres Christmas Tree Farm. The school tours introduce kids to farming life and are a good way to let people know about the Christmas tree business.
“We’ve had people come who said they didn’t know we were out here until their kids came on a school tour,” May said. “It certainly helps us.”
The kids especially enjoy the special pig races at Lazy Acres. How do you get a pig to race?
“You entice them with Oreo cookies,” May said. “Pigs have a tremendous sense of smell. Anytime I go into the pen, they know I’m bringing the Oreo cookies in. They race around the track for Oreo cookies. We’ve added that this year. We have also added a pumpkin patch during October. I think you will see more Christmas tree farmers move towards adding a pumpkin patch to supplement their income through the year. With Christmas trees, income comes only once per year.”
The pig races and the reindeer at the Mays’ farm are part of a trend in alternative agriculture known as “agritainment.” It is a mixture of agriculture and entertainment aimed at people who want to enjoy a country outing.
While it may seem to visitors that Christmas tree farmers are making a lot of money, what visitors don’t see is the amount of work and money that goes into making a quality tree.
“It takes four years to start getting your investment back,” said Wesley Bass, president of Bass Trees and Supply, Columbia, a consultant to Christmas tree growers across the U.S. “Like any type of farming, you are at the mercy of Mother Nature. You have an investment in equipment, and you must devote time to it. A lot of people years ago thought you could plant a small seedling, come back in four years and sell a $30-dollar tree. That doesn’t happen. It requires intensive farm management. The trees have to be sprayed for fungus and insects. You have to use an herbicide to kill weeds. And the trees have to be sheared once or twice per year. It isn’t something someone should get into lightly.”
Bass likens Christmas tree farming to real estate. The three most important things are location, location and location.
“People closer to larger metropolitan areas have bigger market shares and can sell more trees than someone located primarily in a rural area,” said Bass.
Bass said many Christmas tree growers are retired, and currently a lot of people are getting out of the business because of their age. There are also a number of growers who are professionals. The Christmas tree venture gives them physical exercise to balance the office work.
Besides the extra income, Bass said many people get into Christmas tree growing because they like the feeling of accomplishment they get from growing something.
“You also feel like you are doing a little bit of service at Christmas by providing a natural product that isn’t artificial,” Bass said. “Some people think artificial trees are better for the environment because they can be used for many years. But it takes a lot of oil to make an artificial tree. Live Christmas trees put oxygen back in the air, provide habitat for wildlife, and are 100% recyclable. A lot of people are now recycling their natural Christmas trees. They will put them in the backyard after Christmas and use them for bird sanctuaries. They can also be chipped up for recycling as landscape mulch, and they don’t lie in a landfill as long as a plastic artificial tree.”
A late freeze in North Carolina this year caused growers there to lose as much as half of this year’s crop of Frazier firs, the number one cut Christmas tree that is shipped nationally. “This will affect Mississippi growers because we’re in competition with the tree lots,” Bass said. “Most growers here sell to the family who comes out, and they get to walk through the farm and cut the tree. But the retail lots that supply Frazier firs may be down.”
Steve Dicke, a Christmas tree specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, says about 45% of Mississippians have a real tree, and of these, about half are grown in-state. The Mississippi Christmas Tree Growers Association reported sales in 2001 of 120,000 trees with a retail value of $4.2 million. Prices this year are expected to be normal, with a six- to seven-foot tree selling for $4 to $5 a foot and a large, 10-plus foot tree selling for $7 to $8 a foot. Most state Christmas tree farms are choose-and-cut farms where customers walk through the lot, select the tree they want and cut it themselves.
Primary varieties grown are Virginia pine, eastern red cedar, Leyland cypress and Arizona cypress. The majority of the farms are in the southern part of the state where the bulk of the population lives.
“Most people will buy from a grower within 30 miles of them, but some of our growers say their customers may drive more than 60 miles to cut a tree on their farm,” Dicke said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.