Still, growers urge early buying

The economy, weather, disease and aging growers have all combined to create a shortage of Christmas trees across the country.

The trouble started about 10 years ago, when the Great Recession began and, consequently, fewer Christmas trees were sold.

“There was a glut of trees, way too many,” said Don Hallowell, of Don’s Tree Farm in Greenwood. “They weren’t selling them, so the trees got too big and they ended up having to cut them down and burn them.”

Many growers, discouraged, either left the business or planted fewer trees. Now, Delaware is feeling the effect.

The 62-year-old Hallowell, however, is an anomaly and the reason many Delawareans will have a Christmas tree this year. He was just getting started when the recession began, planting about seven acres. He’ll sell his own trees for the first time this year, in addition to thousands of trees he’s imported from other states.

“My wife and I travel all summer long and buy large blocks of trees,” Hallowell said.

This year, many Delaware Christmas tree farmers are supplementing their crop with Hallowell’s imported, pre-cut trees.

Weather

“We’ve had weather issues over the past few years,” 77-year-old Jim Landis said. “Our field doesn’t always drain well and that rots out the roots.”

Landis Tree Farm, in Harbeson, was flooded in 2010, causing them to lose about 450 trees. The same thing happened in 2012, and that year they lost thousands.

This year, Landis said, he’ll be able to cut about 250 trees. He also buys imported trees from Hallowell.

“We have a lot of small trees in the field right now, so we’ll have to keep supplementing the next few years to get back to where we were,” he said. “But we have plenty of precut trees, and we can get more if we need them.”

Aging growers

In Dover, Pat Dyer is one of a few growers that isn’t also selling imported, pre-cut trees.

“What I grow is what I got,” he said. “And I’ll sell all I’ve got this year.”

The about four-acre Dyer Tree Farm will have over 4,000 trees available this year, but Dyer isn’t sure how many more years that will last. He’s eyeing retirement.

“My son doesn’t want the trees,” he said. “It’s a tough business. You have to live by your field because you have to be out here every day. You’ve got to spray the trees year-round.”

For most people, selling Christmas trees alone isn’t enough to make a living.

“You don’t do this for the money,” Dyer said.

Disease

John Clark, of Clark Tree Farm in Smyrna, is dealing with a different issue –  needle casting.

According to the University of Maryland Extension, needle cast is characterized by yellow or brown needles that shed prematurely and is caused by fungi that infect certain species of trees. It’s spread from tree to tree via spores carried by the wind.

Clark said the best thing to do when that happens is cut the tree out and dispose of it.

“I’m a very small grower but I’ve had to cut out a lot of mine, probably half,” he said. “You have to have a rigid spray program to control it, every week in the spring and that still might not do it.”

The 79-year-old has about 40 trees to be cut this year. He does not sell imported pre-cut trees.

“This is not a big money maker for me,” he said. “We just have fun, my boys and me. We like to watch the families pick out their trees.”

Buy now

Over in Clayton, 53-year-old Brook Smith of Cardinal Woods Farm will sell Hallowell’s imported, pre-cut trees for the first time this year, plus about 2,000 trees he’s grown.

“We are seeing a higher demand this year,” Smith said. “Two of my biggest competitors aren’t selling this year.”

Of the growers Smith is referring to, one retired and the other took the year off due to a lack of fully grown trees, likely due to a lack of planting during the recession.

Most Christmas tree farms opened on Black Friday, and growers are urging buyers to tag their trees as soon as possible.

“We’ve got plenty of trees,” Hallowell said, “But we’re going to sell ‘em.”