Christmas tree farms see crowds, smaller crop

Drought, supply chain problems mean farmers cannot meet demand, raises concern for next year’s crop and season

SACRAMENTO – Impacts of the drought and supply chain problems have not spared operators of choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms.

Current supplies of the evergreens are tighter, and with a steady flow of customers still flocking to farms to cut them down, tree growers say they’re trying to manage crowds and the crop so that there will be enough trees to sell in future years.

It’s not uncommon for cars to jam the main road leading to Indian Rock Tree Farm in El Dorado County and for people to wait two hours to get in, said grower Sam Rumbaugh. For this reason, the farm started a new reservation system this year to control crowds during the three days after Thanksgiving, traditionally the opening weekend for most Christmas tree farms.

During the last several years though, Indian Rock has been opening the weekend before Thanksgiving to accommodate eager customers who want to get their trees earlier, Rumbaugh said. That means closing early, she said, as supplies thin. This year is no different.

With no ability to irrigate her crop, lack of rainfall and heat decimated some 200 stumped trees on her farm this year. This is a huge loss, she said, as those stumps represent not just one tree but future trees that can be grown from the stump.

“This was the toughest year on our trees ever,” Rumbaugh said.

Other impacts such as fires, population growth, retiring tree farmers and fewer new ones to replace them have pressured the business and affected availability of trees, she said. If these issues persist and more trees are not planted, Rumbaugh said, there may come a time when people will need to be a member of a tree farm club to buy a fresh Christmas tree.

Keith Garlock, owner of Garlock Tree Farm in Sonoma County, said he continues to plant more trees, but the drought has made it harder to keep them alive.

“I think I need to plant more to try to double down a little bit on the survival rate,” he said.

Garlock also imports precut trees from the Pacific Northwest to supplement what’s on his farm, but a crushing heat wave this past summer scorched many of those trees, shorting supplies. What was available, he said, came at a premium.

With a shortage of truck drivers, Garlock said transporting out-of-state trees to the farm was much more difficult to arrange. Not only did the trees arrive later than usual, but costs also went up 20%. That forced him to raise his prices by 8%, he said.

At McBurney Christmas Tree Farm in Nevada County, grower Bob McBurney said he was already low on trees last year and supplies remain tight now, especially of taller trees. In business since 1956, the 7-acre farm grows primarily red firs, white firs and Douglas firs, species that take longer to size. Even though he’s been planting steadily to replenish what’s been cut, he said, the farm tends to go through a cycle of lower supplies about every 20 years.

“In about four years, I’ll be back in business again,” McBurney said. “It’s something I’m used to. You prepare for it, so it’s not a big thing for me.”

Since it opened in 1959, Cal-Sierra Tree Farm in Calaveras County never once had to close due to drought—until this year.

Owner Yolanda Buller said paltry rainfall has slowed growth of her trees. Branches have become so brittle and needles so dry that she said she feared the trees would be a fire danger for customers. Plus, cutting them would put stress on the stumps, increasing the risk that they would not survive to reproduce. She noted that some of the ones cut last year did not make it.

“This is the worst we’ve seen,” Buller said of her trees’ condition.

The 40-acre farm cut more trees last year because some of the other farms in the area did not open, she noted. The increased business forced Buller to close her farm after five days because “we just didn’t want to cut any more trees.”

This year, Anderson Christmas Tree Farm in Calaveras County had to close early, said owner Charlie Anderson. With Cal-Sierra being shut down, he said, “this is by far the fastest I’ve sold out.” He said he opted to close early because he didn’t want to overcut and not have quality trees for next year. The survival rate of newly planted trees has been about 10% in recent years, he noted.

Anderson did not open at all in 2019 and 2020—last year because of the pandemic and the year before due to other business reasons. Taking the two years off, he noted, has been beneficial for his trees, which have not grown much because of the drought. He’s been irrigating them, which he said is now “the new reality.”

Even though Anderson raised tree prices by $10, he said it would not cover the increased cost of watering them. Cost of precut trees that he imports from Oregon also rose about 10% to 15%, he noted.

Jim Beck of Patchen Christmas Tree Farms in Santa Clara County said he would like to think that supply chain issues that left artificial trees in short supply this year influenced shoppers to look for real Christmas trees. Supply chain woes have also affected his business, a substantial part of which is in selling wreaths. The bases of those wreaths come from Oregon, and getting them to the farm has been a challenge, he said.

“This year we almost didn’t get wreaths at all,” Beck said.

He noted the cost of a 53-foot trailer from Portland to San Francisco rose from $1,800 to about $6,000 this year. The shipment also arrived a week late due to the trucking shortage, he said.

Not all Christmas tree farms are struggling with supply. Grower Robert Criswell of Black Road Christmas Tree Farms in Santa Clara County described his tree crop as “huge” after he closed last year due to concerns about the pandemic.

Criswell said he hasn’t had the “crushing crowds that have shown up in the past, but it’s been very steady.” His parking lots on weekends have been about 80% to 90% full, he noted.

“Because we got early rains, the trees are really looking good,” he said. “People are so excited with what they’re finding. I don’t know how many customers have said, ‘We are so glad that you’re back open this year.’”

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

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