Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//December 11, 2020
Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//December 11, 2020
Having a hard time finding that perfect Christmas tree this year? You’re not alone, but don’t blame the Grinch. You can blame the pandemic, at least for making a bad situation worse.
Some area retail yards and cut-your-own farms have already shuttered, sold out of stock, or are unable to get another shipment of trees from wholesalers to fill customer needs.
“I am hearing from our members this is a record-breaking year. People are buying real trees,” said Michelle Keyser, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association in Harrisburg.
Pine Brook Hollow in Emmaus sold out of fresh trees and planned shut down its retail and choose-and-cut operation at the farm at 4 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 11.
“The demand is unprecedented this year caused by people not traveling and wanting to get back to a more traditional tree,” said Greg Umlauf, owner of Pine Brook Hollow.
But Christmas tree shortages aren’t entirely due to coronavirus fatigue, or high consumer demand. In fact this year’s perfect storm has been brewing for 10 years.
“The wholesale demand is extremely strong, and there is an extreme shortage of trees all over the east coast,” said Paul Shealer, owner of Evergreen Acres Tree Farm in West Brunswick Township, Schuylkill County, which sells trees to both retail and wholesale markets. Most of Shealer’s trees – about 70 acres of tree production – stay in southeastern Pennsylvania. He also serves customers in New Jersey and Delaware.
Two distinct issues are creating the current shortage: a bad year in 2010 and the pandemic.
Tree over production, inventory overstocks, cheap wholesale prices and lower demand in 2010 forced a lot of nursery growers to get out of the business because they were flooded with seedlings they couldn’t sell, Shealer said. “Millions of Frasier fir seedlings were plowed under [in 2010],” he said.
Add to that an aging farmer population and no one to hand the family business off to.
“You put those things together: reduced plantings, farms going out of business, reduced seedlings, 10 years in the [production] rotation and high demand because of a global pandemic,” Shealer said.
A standard 6-to-8 foot tall Douglass or Frasier fir, favored for its rich green color, soft short needles and stiff branches, are among the most popular Christmas trees and can take up to 10 years from seedling to harvest.
“Every one of my wholesale customers has come back to me looking for trees, and I’ve had to turn them down,” Shealer said.
Randy Hunt, owner of Hunt’s Christmas Trees in Manor Township, Lancaster County is also closed for the season. “We are sold out,” he said. It’s the first year he’s ever run out of pre-cut trees, and the first time he’s closed the cutting field this early.
“It was crazy. We had about double the demand from last year,” he said.
Like other producers Hunt said he’s walking a fine line between sales today, and protecting tomorrow’s crop.
Both Umlauf and Hunt opened tree sales on November 21 and said sales have been non-stop.
“Retailers are trying to buy wholesale – other tree farms have been trying to get more trees,” Hunt said. He has not heard of any choose-and-cut farms still open in his area around Millersville.
Oh Christmas tree
Christmas trees first appeared on the agriculture census in Pennsylvania in 1998. The commonwealth ranks number three in the nation for the number of Christmas tree farms, according to the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association said.
About 30 customers who reserved Hunt’s Christmas Trees in the field in October will still be able to come and take their trees, Hunt said.
Christmas trees are believed to date to a town in Latvia, where the first record was made in 1510, according to The National Christmas Tree Association website.
They became popular in the United States with German immigrants, who brought the custom of cutting and bringing a fresh tree indoors to decorate during the mid-1850s.
In 2019 the National Christmas Tree Growers Association website reported about 26.2 million fresh Christmas trees were purchased across the United States.
Chris Botek, owner of Chrystal Spring Tree Farm in Lehighton, Carbon County, said the season seems to have accelerated by about a week over previous years. “Instead of my busiest weekend being the week after Thanksgiving, it was the week of Thanksgiving,” he said.
Business has been steady so far, and Botek has not had problems with supply. “If the demand continues I won’t sell out, but I will start to get concerned for next year,” he said. He said several growers plan to close after the weekend of December 12 and 13.
“I’m not going to pull the plug yet,” Botek said.
About 200 acres of evergreen trees are planted at Chrystal Spring, and all the growers interviewed for this article said there is very little demand for ball and burlap trees for Christmas.
With a root ball weighing in at about 150 pounds and the climate conditions required to keep the trees alive, “people realized how much work they are,” Botek said.
“I think more people are planning on staying home, decorating their homes for Christmas because they are going to be there, so they are going to put a tree up,” he said.
Preserving stock for 2021
Farmers also want to make sure they have quality stock to offer in subsequent years.
“It’s not just financially, but it’s about customer service because you want to make sure you have that tree for the family that’s been coming to your farm for 20 years,” Botek said.
Shealer, who has been a Pennsylvania Farm Show Grand Champion 11 times, including in 2020, is a third generation Christmas tree farmer. His son is set to take over the family business next year.
In 2000 Shealer supplied a Christmas tree for the White House in Washington D.C. In August, 2021, he’ll head to North Carolina to compete for the honor of supplying the White House Christmas tree once more.
Botek said tree growers are a collegial community and are working together to serve customers and hold prices reasonable. He said they’re ultimately business owners trying to protect next year’s revenue, and that “every grower is passionate about putting a fresh tree in someone’s home.
From the White House to the family living room, this year a fresh tree feels right.
“If you’re looking for trees, you’d better not wait until Christmas,” Shealer said.