Christmas tree farmers report rising sales

National Christmas Tree Association said retailers should have had a ‘very large Christmas season’

CALIFORNIA – Despite making preparations since August to open, Santa Clara County Christmas tree farmer Robert Criswell decided against it, due to pandemic concerns. Other farms report robust tree sales.

At Silveyville Christmas Tree Farm in Solano County, grower Jeri Seifert said the choose-and-cut farm’s opening day after Thanksgiving became “one of the biggest days we’ve ever experienced.” She noted sales during the three-day weekend accounted for half of what she sold all season last year. With what’s left of her inventory, Seifert said she anticipates closing early.

“People are anxious, ready to get decorated for Christmas,” she said. “They don’t want to wait. They want that Christmas feeling in their houses now. They’re not really concerned about how much it is. They just want the tree; they want it now.”

The National Christmas Tree Association cited early signs that many Americans would be seeking farm-grown trees this year: record sales at garden centers, which indicated they were expecting and preparing for “a very large Christmas season”; record numbers of visitors earlier in the autumn to pumpkin patches and U-pick farms; and “unprecedented levels” of early inquiries from customers wanting to know when tree farms would open.

“It is clear families want to have fun and memorable outdoor experiences as a break from the challenges of coronavirus,” NCTA spokesman Doug Hundley said.

With face-covering requirements and modifications to accommodate distancing and other health protocols, the experience is different this year, Seifert acknowledged.

The farm spent nearly $15,000 on a new checkout system that allows for shorter lines and faster transactions, she said. She also installed Plexiglas on the sleigh used to transport people around the farm.

Gone are the playground and the firepit where visitors gathered for hot cider. There are no tours or parties, and limits have been placed on the number of customers in the farm store. To reduce weekend crowds, the farm runs weekday specials to encourage visitors during nonpeak times.

Seifert, who serves as president of the California Christmas Tree Association, said uncertainties about the pandemic and related lockdowns made it “the worst year ever” to project how many precut trees to order. Her farm usually brings in thousands of fresh-cut firs from other states to supplement her farmed crop. Those supplies “have been limited somewhat,” she said, adding that smaller farms have reported difficulty acquiring small loads of fresh firs.

Nationally, the NCTA has reported a shorter supply of harvestable trees since 2015, due to fewer trees being planted in previous years. Seifert pointed to wildfires that have destroyed trees as another factor for the state’s tighter supply. Also, some Christmas tree farms chose not to open this year due to the pandemic, she added.

Despite working “very intensively getting ready” since August, Robert Criswell of Black Road Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Clara County said he made the “very, very difficult decision” to kill plans to open his farm, hours before it was set to happen. He described “a very restless night struggling” over county health department protocols and decided “there was just no safe way that I could open.”

“I did 10 years of soul searching in one night,” Criswell said.

Afraid he’d be overwhelmed by typical post-Thanksgiving Day crowds, Criswell had already delayed his opening. But concerns that his farm would be a “super-spreader site” and questions about the safety of a disinfectant he would be asking his staff to use served as “the nail in the coffin,” he said.

With at least 50,000 trees in the ground, Criswell said his farm is “definitely not short of trees,” and by staying closed this year, “we’re going to have a huge crop of big trees” next season.

“I’m not worried about permanently losing customers. I think they’ll be back next year,” he said.

Even though Seifert increased plantings during the last two years, she said she “can’t grow enough trees to keep up with demand” and is considering converting some of her pumpkin patch to trees.

Holly Bezner of Little Bear Tree Farm in Placer County, which opened the week before Thanksgiving, said people were so eager to pick out trees that they were calling to ask if she would consider opening closer to Halloween. The farm was set to launch online ordering and curbside pickup this year due to the pandemic, but Bezner said she doesn’t think she will now have enough trees available to offer the service, noting she’s already “planting heavily.”

Bezner gave some credit to “fantastic, warm weather the past few weeks” for helping to drive attendance to her farm, but said people are also “pent up, wanting to get out and do an outdoor activity with their families.”

“They want something positive to look forward to—and to get that countdown to the end of the year underway as soon as possible,” she said.

As primarily a choose-and-cut farm, Don Moore of Twain Harte Tree Farm in Tuolumne County said he had anticipated a busy opening day after Thanksgiving, and it turned out to be “our biggest day ever.”

“It was chaos,” he said, noting there were at least 50 people waiting when he opened that first morning.

Even though his 2019 season was shortened due to snow, giving him more trees this year, Moore said he hit his annual sales target of about 500 to 700 trees in three days and closed early. That the county’s other choose-and-cut farm did not open this year likely contributed to the increased traffic and demand at his farm, he said.

“We’re blessed with lots of repeat customers,” Moore said. “We’ve been open 40-some years, and people just make it a family tradition and they come back year after year.”

Ching Lee is assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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