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Critical factors: patience, marketing and low labor costs

Fa-la-la! Tree farmers expect merry season

Every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Tommy and Jonell McDaniel offer free sleigh rides on their eight-acre Christmas tree farm in Sallis.

During the week, the couple hosts field trips, where they dole out coloring books and refreshments to schoolchildren. Jonell McDaniel also whips up live wreaths for garden clubs and social meetings and teaches workshops. Their marketing efforts have helped Ole McDaniel Tree Farm, a choose-and-cut operation, grow into a bustling holiday business.

“It`s become a family tradition for people to come here to get their Christmas tree,” said Jonell McDaniel. “The ones who were little when we started are now getting trees for their own families.”

The McDaniels, who began growing Leyland cypress, Carolina sapphire and red cedar varieties of Christmas trees approximately 10 years ago, had to wait five years to turn a profit.

“It takes a lot of patience waiting on trees to grow and building a market,” said Jonell McDaniel, who advertises in local high school football programs. “But my husband and I really enjoy doing this.”

The McDaniels represent one of only 90 to 100 families still operating choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms in Mississippi. Peak production occurred in Mississippi in 1985, when 450 Christmas tree farms produced 330,000 trees. Production dropped to 200,000 trees in 1993 after a national oversupply of trees drove most growers out of business. Last year, approximately 110,000 trees, with a retail value of $4.2 million, were sold in the state.

“Many farms closed as a result of the labor involved in maintaining quality trees that are better than consumers can find at retail lots,” said Steve Dicke, Ph.D., Christmas tree specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “The up-front costs are usually around $2,000 per acre, including $3.50 apiece for seedlings, and about $500 annually for management needs, including shearing three times a year and pesticide spraying once a month or more. Marketing costs are around $500 for the year that an acre is sold, so you’re in the hole substantially before you sell your first tree.”

If Christmas tree farmers can keep labor costs down, usually by doing the work themselves on weekends and in the evenings, they can make about $1,300 per acre per year, said Dicke.

“It`s hard to beat that kind of return on any other crop you can grow in Mississippi,” he said. “It may take five or six years to break even, but it`s one of the most profitable ways to make money on a little bit of land in Mississippi.”

Many Christmas tree farms fail because farmers plant too many trees, said Dicke.

“Farmers should start small and expand gradually,” he said. “They’re working in a very small market — basically people who live within 20 miles. Half of the people are going to have artificial trees and half of the ones that are left are probably going to retail lots. You’re looking at a quarter of the families in your area, provided you don`t have competition, so base acreage on that. Growers don`t usually have trouble selling 500 or fewer trees in a year.”

Tree farmers are also dealing with two nagging trends: artificial trees are taking an increasingly bigger chunk of the business, and people are asking for taller trees, which take longer to grow.

“It seems like everyone wants an eight- to 12-foot tall tree,” said Russ Whited of Whited Farm Fresh Christmas Trees in Fort Myers, Fla.

As technology improves and trees look more realistic, people are jumping to fake ones, even though they are not environmentally friendly or recyclable. (In southern Louisiana, recycled trees are in great demand for coastal restoration.) In 1990, about half of all U.S. homes with trees used fake ones, but last year, the number jumped to 70%, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Don Kazery Jr. of Don Kazery Jr. Tree Farm in Jackson, who sells Leyland cypress, said he`s noticing one very favorable trend. People are returning to choose-and-cut farms for live trees.

“The trees going to retail lots in town are cut over a month earlier,” he said. “One man picked out a tree but didn`t want to cut it until closer to Christmas Day. It turns out he had a bad experience with a live tree off a lot that got too dry by Christmas, so he`s being extra careful. The trees you cut now will use about a gallon of water a day for the first few days and will last almost to Valentine`s Day.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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