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Tree growers dreaming of green Christmas

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — The state’s Christmas tree growers were largely spared from the adverse weather that devastated much of Mississippi’s crop this year. With a good stand in the field, growers are hoping that another “adverse condition” — the recession — will also play to their advantage.

“When the downturn hit last year, people did not travel, which gave them time to plan an old-fashioned holiday with a traditional tree,” said Dr. Stephen Dicke, area forestry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “When people travel less, Christmas tree sales usually go up.”

Michael May, executive secretary of the Southern Christmas Tree Association, representing growers in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, said optimism is running high this year. The drought this spring had growers worried, but the rains that came, and stayed, salvaged this year’s crop.

He pointed out that many farmers have turned to pumpkins and Christmas trees in an effort to generate extra revenue during the holiday season. Unfortunately, the rains came too late to save much of this year’s pumpkin crop.

“The drought killed my pumpkins,” said May, adding that solid Christmas tree sales would be a boost to him and others who lost so much in pumpkins.

Cedar Hill Farm in Hernando is a prime example of those entering the agri-tourism realm with corn mazes, pumpkin patches, Christmas trees and other offerings to bring in off-season revenues. The farm is offering Christmas trees for the first time this year. Manager Robert Foster said Cedar Hill does not know what to expect in terms of Christmas tree sales this year, but is optimistic that the farm’s 15 acres of trees will turn a profit.

Dicke reports buyers should have a good-looking inventory from which to choose.

“The rains actually saved many growers who were experiencing severe drought earlier this year,” he said. “Many trees recovered from being stressed by the lack of water during that time period and were able to put on needed growth and foliage.”

Larry Massey, who operates Rosebud Christmas Tree Plantation near Walnut Grove in Leake County, sells about 500 trees per year, and currently has approximately 3,000 trees on his farm. He is also the incoming president of the Southern Christmas Tree Association.

Massey said he has implemented a regular treatment program to help ensure healthy trees, and sprays every two weeks to control disease problems. He, too, hopes to see healthier returns on his investment, especially after seeing how the weakened economy affected last year’s revenue.

“Last year near the beginning of the marketing season, I expected to see a drop in purchases, but I actually experienced a 3 percent increase in sales,” Massey said. “Growers may see another increase in sales this year.”

Christmas tree growers in Mississippi and across the nation need a bounce-back year. Most of the industry numbers have been trending downward for a half-decade.

In 2008, U.S. consumers purchased 28.2 million farm-grown Christmas trees, representing a decrease of approximately 10 percent over 2007 and well below the high of 32.8 million trees purchased in 2005, according to figures from the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA).

Mark Steelhammer, NCTA president, said it was a tough year, but added that “”many of the small choose and cut farms…had a strong year in spite of the overall decline.”

Another NCTA stat has growers feeling better. While live tree sales fell 10 percent in 2008, fake tree sales plummeted 35 percent.

But, Mississippi growers need more than just good news. The state’s industry has been in decline lately. In fact, the numbers have been awful.

In 2007, the NCTA reported Mississippi growers harvested 20,889 trees, a decline of 47 percent since 2002. While the number of operators fell be a mere 9 percent over that time, the number of acres planted fell 50 percent from 2002 to 2007. Obviously, all of that decline cannot be attributed to the recession.

“It’s hard to point to a specific cause for the decline,” Steelhammer said. He added, “While many will just blame the economy, our agricultural product’s retail value is naturally volatile once it hits the retail level because of the condensed sales season.”

The state’s growers are not out of the woods — or fields — yet. Weather could still wreck this year’s Christmas tree crop. May said his operation has gotten all the rain it needs, and is hopeful the skies clear after Thanksgiving when most consumers purchase a tree.

Massey said he hopes growers will have dry weather to finish their crop preparations on time.

“I haven’t had too many problems with getting my equipment into the fields because most of my trees are on hilly land,” he said. “We need sunny weather mainly to allow the ground to dry out so customers can walk around and enjoy picking out their trees.”


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