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Don't wait to buy a Christmas tree. Amid COVID-19 tree shortages, they're selling fast

Emily Lytle
Dover Post

As John Clark stood in his driveway near the small town of Clayton, rain lightly falling on his baseball cap and speckling his hunter green fleece, he pointed across the street toward a vast span of woods.

He reminisced about the days when he was a kid – before Christmas tree farms became more popular – when he and his family would traverse those woods to find a pine tree on Christmas Eve.

That old fashioned approach of finding a tree out in nature faded away as the demand for live trees grew, prompting tree farms and roadside stands to pop up throughout Delaware.

John Clark celebrates his 50th year growing Christmas trees near Clayton.

While the state is not known for Christmas tree farms, considering that most varieties grow best in higher elevations and cooler climates, a handful of family-run farms open their fields to the public each winter.

This year, many owners said the nice weather and the anticipation of the holiday season prompted big crowds and sales during the weekend after Thanksgiving – a sign that much like 2020, this holiday season may look different than years past.

Trees selling fast

Clark is celebrating his small tree farm’s 50th anniversary this season. The farm is only open on Saturdays and Sundays with the loose hours of “sunup to sundown,” but Clark said he has already noticed a big difference this year.

He described the first two weeks of business as "very brisk" and said he's pleased with the turnout. 

Don’s Tree Farm in Greenwood has been around for 13 seasons, and owner Don Hallowell said this may be their busiest yet.

Roseann Conlon, owner of Turning Pointe Farm in Hartly, said her small tree farm – which she started with her late husband Tom Conlon 33 years ago – was “very, very busy” that first opening weekend.

“I think people have been so housebound that the idea of getting outside and doing something other than being at home has been very appealing to them,” she said.

And people were ready to get into the holiday spirit, said Donna Cavender, marketing coordinator at Willey Farms on Route 13 near Townsend.

The family business has been around for 45 years, expanding with produce and groceries, a garden center, gift shops and more. During the holidays, Willey Farms has fresh-cut trees, wreaths, garlands, grave arrangements and gifts.

Willey Farms in Townsend sells ornaments and other gift ideas for the holiday season.

“It’s been going very well and it’s been going early,” Cavender said. “Everybody is out and they’re so anxious to buy a Christmas tree, to buy gifts, to buy ornaments.”

Farther south, Don Hallowell – owner of Don’s Tree Farm in Greenwood – described this year as probably the largest opening weekend he has had in 13 seasons of business. He predicted they will likely run out of trees this year.

Hallowell points to what he says is a nationwide trend of increasing demand for live trees and an ongoing decline in growers available to supply that demand.

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“Everybody’s quitting, everybody’s getting out of the Christmas tree business," he said. "There’s no young people in the Christmas tree business." 

John Honaker, who owns a tree stand on Kenton Road in Dover and sells other agricultural products throughout the year, agreed. 

John Honaker owns a tree stand on Kenton Road where he sells a variety of trees, wreaths and grave arrangements.

He said sales have been “phenomenal,” and that he sold 170 trees his first weekend open. He normally orders his trees from Pennsylvania and said the business usually gets two to three loads of trees, "but this year [we] can’t get them.”

The biggest advice from Don’s Tree Farm and other businesses in the area?

“Go early," he said, and "get your tree because they’re not going to last.”

FIND A FARM:Look at a map of nearby Christmas tree growers at DelawareGrown.com

Closed for the 2020 season

While a shortage of Christmas trees has been a trend over the last few years, Hallowell said the problem is likely exacerbated this year because some farms are simply not opening.

Between the COVID-19 restrictions and difficulties shipping trees in from places like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and even Canada, Hallowell estimated that 40% of farms never opened.

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For Tracie Reinhart, owner of Wallflower Farm, a country store and farm in north Dover, the decision to close was not an easy one.

Wallflower Farm opened for its first holiday season last year, offering precut trees from Don’s Tree Farm, wreaths and a variety of gifts from local vendors.

But as November began, Reinhart was concerned that any further statewide restrictions might cause her to shut down and she could get struck with trees, with no way to sell them. She ultimately decided that “it’s just not worth it this year.”

“It made me sad. At first, I cried,” she said shortly after deciding to close early last month. “We had just bought a refurbished sleigh to put outside for pictures. We had done a lot of that stuff already.”

The shop would typically offer a corner for kids to write letters to Santa. The children are what she'll miss the most.

Ultimately, though, she said this is not her primary source of income, and she encouraged people to shop at the small businesses that remain open.

“Really try to support them as best you can,” she said. “It’s not always the cheapest option, but it goes a long way to helping us survive.”

Over at Dyer’s Tree Farm in Dover, the pandemic was not the biggest factor in its decision to close for the season.

Pat Dyer (left) and his son Jeff Dyer stand in their field of trees at Dyer's Tree Farm where much of the crop was damaged after the tornado came through the area in August. The farm will not be open this season.

In August, the farm off State Street found itself in the middle of a tornado that sent trees flying through houses and across cars, leaving many homes unlivable. It also ripped up and knocked over several of Dyer’s Christmas trees.

Jeff Dyer, son of owner Pat Dyer, said lightheartedly that it was a good thing the farm wasn’t short on chainsaws because “I had to cut Dad out of the house with a chainsaw.”

Besides concerns about hazards and stumps in the field, Dyer said the staff consists of only his family, and they didn’t have the ability to uphold all the COVID-19 restrictions.

“When you’re a small, family-run farm, it’s not an easy process to monitor how many people are on your tree farm at any time,” he said.

While Dyer said he will miss the interactions with returning customers who have become like family, he is optimistic that “we’ll probably be stronger next year.”

Dyer's Tree Farm off State Street in Dover will not be open due to tornado damage and COVID-19 restrictions.

Some changes, some continued traditions

As John Clark celebrates his farm’s 50th anniversary, he has continued his family’s agricultural tradition by growing his small collection of Christmas trees in a field across from the classic red barn and home where his father moved in the mid-1930s.

Despite a difficult year, he said he has loved seeing all the children coming to pick a tree with their families.

Clark said that's what makes the constant fight to protect their long-term crop from disease and weather conditions worth it.

“You’ve got to stay with it and you’re not going to get rich on it, but it’s a great thing at Christmastime to see people coming out,” he said.

In this old photograph, Tom Conlon of Turning Pointe Farm in Hartly works in the field with helper Adam Thompson. The farm started 33 years ago.

While farms are requiring masks and social distancing, posting signs provided by the Delaware Department of Agriculture, many are relishing some continued comforts.

At Turning Pointe Farm, Roseann Conlon said they try to highlight the spiritual aspect of the season with a large nativity scene that people can choose to visit.

She said the family prays for all the requests left at the nativity.

Turning Pointe Farm near Hartly tries to keep the spiritual aspect of the holiday season alive by offering a nativity scene at its tree farm each season.

“We have had quite a few little miracles that have come to the people who visited and prayed there,” she said.

At Don’s Tree Farm, for the first time, Santa will not making an appearance.

But since St. Nick is not there in person, the farm is encouraging kids to write letters and promises to forward the letters back to Santa at the North Pole.