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PHOTO: Barry Cruver/Flickr
Every year, people across the nation purchase Christmas trees for their holiday celebrations, and while artificial trees are popular these days, there is always a demand for real trees that provide the scent, ambiance and one-of-a-kind appearance that artificial trees just can’t equal. While large-scale Christmas tree farms satisfy some of this demand, perhaps your farm has the potential to fill a local demand.
Let’s say that you have a few acres—even slightly rocky and uneven ones that aren’t ideal for keeping livestock or growing crops, such as corn or potatoes. Why not embrace the nature of the field and use it to grow Christmas trees?
Before you dig in, though, the obvious question is this: Can Christmas-tree farming be a profitable endeavor for a small-scale hobby farm with little space to spare? Let’s explore what’s involved and find out.
Christmas trees—unlike most crops—take much longer than a single season to reach maturity. “Christmas trees can take eight to 10 years from planting until harvest,” says Tom Harbinson, facilities & hospitality manager of the Jones Family Farms and Winery in Shelton, Conn. “That is a long-term commitment to the crop that a farmer should be aware of going into it.”
Historically, farmers often chose imperfect fields for growing Christmas trees, but if you want to give your trees the best start in life, choose a field with well-drained soil. Christmas trees won’t grow well in wet conditions. And though it’s easy to think that the trees will simply grow themselves without any maintenance, that isn’t the case.
“It is a crop that does still need care, such as pruning and shaping—making sure a single leader points upward to eventually hold a star or angel for a family’s tradition—as well as being aware of diseases that can attack and diminish a tree,” Harbinson says. Each tree must be sheared every summer once they have reached 3 years of age and roughly 5 feet in height to ensure that the branches grow thickly and form a beautiful Christmas tree shape.
It can also be tricky to establish the trees during the early years of their life, when they are vulnerable and require careful watering and weeding care. “There can be challenges in the early seedling stages regarding irrigation of the crop, particularly with drought that many areas of the country are facing,” Harbinson says.
There’s a very small window of time when the harvest of Christmas trees can be profitable, and farmers should keep this in mind. “Nobody is buying Christmas trees in July, so beware that although the activity of caring for the crop can be year-round, the harvest is obviously a seasonal one and return of revenue for your input creates craters and valleys over a span of time,” Harbinson says.
Obviously, not every tree will work as a Christmas tree. There’s a reason why broad-leafed deciduous trees aren’t used for Christmas celebrations: They drop their leaves in the fall and dry out quickly when cut. Even a tree cut on Christmas Eve might be shriveled and brown by Christmas morning.
As a result, the needle-leaved coniferous trees—which hold their beautiful appearance for much longer after being cut—are the ideal choice for Christmas trees, though some members of this family are more popular than others. Fir trees are among the most desirable species to use as Christmas trees, with Douglas fir being particularly ideal for beginners to grow. Spruce trees, such as blue spruce and white spruce, are also common. For a completely different look, pines such as Scotch pine or white pine can be grown, although you might find that there isn’t as much demand for these less traditional types of Christmas trees.
Of course, the biggest question for a hobby farmer is whether growing Christmas trees on a small scale can be profitable these days. To put it simply, the answer is: Yes!
As with any crop, there will be expenses involved—depending on the size of your Christmas tree plantation, you might need equipment for planting, pruning and harvesting. Spraying for pests and hiring people to help with the harvest are other possible expenses. But according to the Penn State Cooperative Extension’s sample Douglas fir budget, even a single acre of Christmas trees can yield a sizable profit (in excess of $10,000) when properly managed. In addition, growing Christmas trees can potentially offer tax benefits; be sure to research the potential savings and requirements with an accountant before diving into Christmas tree farming.
But beyond the financial possibilities, there’s another reason to consider growing Christmas trees. Unlike many crops, growing Christmas trees allows you to be part of something bigger and more meaningful than simply growing a crop.
“Christmas celebrations are about traditions—the special foods and recipes created, the times together in family celebrations,” Harbinson says. “The activity of scouting for, selecting, harvesting and decorating a freshly cut Christmas tree to enhance your home for weeks on end is a special gift. The crop the farmer grows will become the centerpiece for a family’s traditions. That is a special gift.”
With many kinds of crops, worrying about selling them isn’t a concern; if you’ve grown a small crop of potatoes in the corner of your farm, you might find it more enjoyable to eat them yourself than attempt to sell them. Obviously, this doesn’t work as well with Christmas trees, because unless you are planning a massive Christmas celebration involving dozens or hundreds of trees, the only way to get the benefits of the crop is to sell them.
There are a few different ways to sell your Christmas trees, depending on personal preference and how many are ready to harvest. One option is to let individuals come to your property and pick out the tree they would like; this works well if your inventory is small and if you want to charge a high price for your tree—selling directly to the end user cuts out the middleman—but if you have hundreds of trees, the logistics of selling each tree individually might not be feasible. Also, be sure to obtain appropriate liability insurance before opening your farm to consumers; the policies and options vary from state to state.
Another option is to sell your trees in bunches to larger businesses that can resell them individually; you might not get as high a price for each tree, but the reduced hassle of selling your trees in large groups can make it worthwhile. You can also blend the two approaches, cutting down your own trees and selling them at a predetermined time and location; this can save you from having people stop by your farm at random times to pick out a Christmas tree.
Because these trees are small and have many branches, they don’t make quality lumber, unfortunately, and they’re not well-suited for firewood either, so leftover Christmas trees will likely have to become mulch if you want to gain back some of your investment.
When preparing to invest in a Christmas tree crop, do some research in your area to determine what trees and sale methods might be popular. If harvested trees are widely available in your region but no one is offering a U-pick option, you might be able to fill a niche. Also, you might find that some types of trees are in higher demand than others; if you can identify the species and styles that are most desirable, you’ll have a head start on your way to success.
If you’re looking to expand on your farm’s new Christmas theme, try growing holly, as well. This beautiful shrub grows attractive red berries and has long been a part of Christmas celebrations, with the branches being used as decorations. Because only the branches and not the entire plant are desirable, hollies can produce a steady supply of branches for years and years, making them a worthwhile addition to your Christmas tree farm. Perhaps you won’t grow enough to make a huge profit, but selling holly branches alongside your trees might help you encourage customers to keep coming back for your unique, home-grown offerings. Be careful , though: If your farm is also home to pets and livestock, holly’s leaves, fruits and seeds can be toxic to some animals.
This article appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.