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Christmas tree crop good, but …

Drought could have impact down the road

The state’s Christmas tree crop is looking good this year. However, the 2014 holiday season could see some consumers going the artificial tree route — out of necessity.

The drought that gripped the entire state from August through October dealt a blow to young Christmas trees. Growers are almost certain to eventually see a negative impact on the their bottom line, according to a report from Mississippi State University.

Mississippi State University Extension Service forestry specialist John Kushla of the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center reports in a statement, “The extreme heat and lack of rain did kill some seedlings planted this year, and some growers reported they lost 20 percent of those seedlings.”

Michael May of Lazy Acres Plantation says his Christmas trees are looking good this year.

Michael May of Lazy Acres Plantation says his Christmas trees are looking good this year.

One of those growers is Michael May, owner of Lazy Acres Plantation, LLC, in Chunky, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. He says his operation lost approximately 20 percent of its seedlings. Historically, he sees a loss on average of 2 percent to 3 percent of seedlings annually, he adds.

“It was definitely a significant loss,” said May, who also serves as executive secretary of the Southern Christmas Tree Association, representing growers in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

Putting an exact dollar figure on that loss is impossible. Seedlings typically cost $1 to $2.50 each. However, there is no figure on input costs — how much money each grower spends to get those seedlings planted and growing.

Most trees raised in Mississippi do not reach maturity until five years old, which makes one-fifth of a grower’s crop marketable each year if new seedlings are planted after the holiday season.

Although growers will replant the lost seedlings, the state could experience a shortage of Christmas trees four years from now, Kushla says.

May says there is another alternative — buying larger, more mature trees and re-growing them. He says that is not a viable option for all growers, though.

The stakes are high for the state’s approximately 50 growers. Best estimates are that the state’s growers see a little more than $2 million annually in revenue.

In addition, many growers also raise other crops, with Christmas trees representing off-season income. May says he talked to a dairyman recently who said “agri-tourism” saved his farm.

“There were 10 dairymen in his area a few years ago; he’s the only one left,” May says.

Christmas tree producers have seen improved sales the last handful of years. Last year, growers were expecting to see a decline in revenue, partially due to the economy and wet weather that made for muddy shopping. However, most growers reported single-digit increases in sales in 2009 over 2008.

Growers interviewed for this story all say they expect a better year in 2010, if weather cooperates.

There have been a number of factors that have played to growers’ favor. “Green consciousness” is one of those, growers say. Consumers see live trees as environmentally friendly, growers contend.

Growers also believe the downturn in the economy has boosted live tree sales. According to industry figures, last year consumers spent on average $40.92 per live tree, compared to $77.01 on artificial trees.

The faltering economy also prompted many to stay closer to home during the holidays, and a visit to a Christmas tree farm is an inexpensive excursion for dollar-conscious families.

“Going to a Christmas tree farm is a family event,” says Terry Pigott, owner of Christmas Memories Tree Farm in Magnolia. “Everybody is involved and takes a turn with the saw and gets a little exercise dragging the tree so we can wrap it for them.”

“It’s hard to point to a specific cause for the (sales) increase,” says Richard Moore, president of the National Christmas Tree Association, in a statement. “It’s definitely not a function of tree prices, at least not for the farm-grown trees.”

Industry experts say many factors can influence sales, including even the number of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Many growers report they are increasing the varieties they offer this year. Blue ice, Virginia pine and Leyland cypress are a few of the varieties most growers typically offer.

Robert Foster, manager of Cedar Hill Farm in Hernando, reports he is adding pre-cut Fraser firs from the Carolinas along side his choose-and-cut varieties.

“There are people who like the look and smell of a live fir. Our farm-grown trees will be hard to pass up, though, because they are looking good,” Foster says.

This adds up to optimism among the state’s Christmas tree growers. May says, weather willing, he expects a better year than the last.

“I’m just 100 miles from New Orleans, so it is not unusual to have customers from Louisiana as well as my regular customers in south Mississippi come buy a tree,” Piggott says.

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