By ROBERT NATHAN GREGORY
Mississippians pondering ideas for a side business could consider investing in land and planting stem cuttings of Leyland and Murray cypress trees.
These two varieties, trees that can grow well in a humid climate, are popular choices for live Christmas trees in the state. Each year, Christmas tree growers struggle to meet high demand.
Kenneth and Lea Barkley of Tylertown will begin featuring these varieties in 2020 when they open their Christmas tree farm for business. They planted 500 trees that will be ready for choose-and-cut sales next year.
“A friend of my husband had a father-in-law with a Christmas tree farm. He was talking about how good it was and could be something to do on the side, so we got into it that way,” Lea Barkley said. “We had family land that we planted everything on by hand. We probably could have sold some this year but decided to wait until they were bigger.”
John Kushla, professor and forestry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said more growers are getting on board, with Barkley Farms expected to open for its first season next year and another farm slated to open in 2021.
He expects prices for a 6- to 7-foot, choose-and-cut tree to run in the $80 to $85 range across the state this year. According to data collected from surveys of more than 20 growers across Mississippi in the Southern Christmas Tree Association, 31,500 to 32,000 Christmas trees will be sold in the state this year.
“Overall, prices for a real Christmas tree have been rising,” he said. “In some markets, there is strong demand for tall trees, which are considerably more per foot in price. These trees take longer to grow and may require specialized equipment to cultivate.”
Many of the species grown in Mississippi for Christmas trees are adapted to drier soil and climatic conditions, so extremes in weather patterns experienced this year, including a dearth of rain earlier this fall, did little to hamper production. Some growers have drip irrigation installed to water trees through droughts.
Disease in Christmas tree farms is one problem made worse by hot weather. Trees become infected in the spring.
“The Leyland cypress is particularly susceptible to several foliar fungal diseases. These manifest themselves during the summer months,” Kushla said. “There is a long gestation for these diseases to show symptoms in the host. Our growers spend a considerable amount of money establishing a spray schedule for fungicides and insecticides to prevent disease or insect outbreak during the growing season. This adds costs to the trees sold.”
All the species grown in Mississippi are also known for their strong needle retention when kept in water after cutting. Leyland cypress, Murray cypress and Virginia pine last three to four weeks, while the Eastern redcedar and Arizona cypress retain needles for two to three weeks.
“Once the customer has the tree at home, it should be put in water right away,” Kushla said. “It is important to have a properly sized tree stand for the tree. A cut real tree needs at least 1 quart of water per inch of diameter. About 1 inch should be removed from the base of the tree before mounting in the tree stand. Keeping the tree cool inside will prolong holiday use for the tree. Avoid displaying the tree near a fireplace, heater vents, or a south-facing window. When decorating, use LED or mini-lights.”
Fraser Fir trees are known as the premier Christmas tree in the South but are imported to Mississippi from the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Customers who buy precut Fraser firs should consider a couple of tips for choosing a fresh tree.
“Bend a twig to check for flexibility. If it snaps, the tree is dried out. Also, gently run your fingers along a branch. If the needles come out in your hand, the tree is dried out,” Kushla said. “Fraser fir has well-spaced, sturdy branches for hanging large ornaments and lights. It also has a wonderful fragrance and excellent needle retention.”
— MSU Extension Service
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