When it comes to the Christmas tree business, it’s difficult being a grower. But business has been booming in 2017 and despite national concerns, prices have largely remained the same with local suppliers confident they can meet the demand for live trees.
Don’t believe us? Just ask Perry Sawyer, owner of Choose & Harvest Christmas Trees, a three-acre farm located off Pequot Trail in Stonington.
“The selection may be limited this year, but part of that is due to an early rush that was larger than we normally see,” said Sawyer, who established the farm after purchasing the property in 1999. “We won’t run out; we will bring in pre-cut trees from larger farms if needed to meet the demand.”
Across the region, tree growers are expecting what industry experts are calling a “tighter market” in 2017 and the Northeast will be no exception. The area is likely to be exempt from any serious shortage, however, thanks in part to a relatively forgiving climate and larger number of active farms to help meet the local and regional demands.
A national shortage has been reported in various media outlets in recent weeks, but that’s not entirely accurate and the areas affected will do little to change the industry in southern New England explained Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association.
Hundley said some of the tightest markets will be along the central Atlantic seaboard and in the Northwest, where farms hit hard by the recession in 2008 have fewer mature trees to offer this season and less selection than in previous years.
Hundley said classifying the market as having a shortage isn’t accurate — in fact, he said he is confident that those who want a real Christmas tree this season should have no problem finding one.
Those shopping for a tree could experience an average increase of 5 to 10 percent in the prices this year, however, as a result of the 2008 recession and the decision by some farmers at that time to limit their operations in order to make ends meet.
“In 2007 we were in the beginning of the ‘Great Recession.’ Christmas tree sales started a downward turn and so did tree prices,” Hundley explained.
“During the following years, Christmas tree growers did not have the space available for normal harvesting, nor the revenue to plant as many trees as they would have if sales had been better,” he said. “The result, 8 to 10 years later, is today's smaller supply.”
Hundely and David Hartikka, owner of Hartikka Tree Farms in Voluntown, each said the reason for the delay in impact is the time it takes for trees to grow. According to Hundley, most farms work with transplant trees, or seedlings that have already been established and rooted. In such cases, once the tree is re-planted, it takes anywhere from 7 to 10 years before it is ready to be cut.
For farms like Hartikka’s — he owns 82 acres, making him one of the largest farms in the area — the impact of the recession has been minimal to this point.
Hartikka is different, however, in the sense that most of his trees started directly as seeds and the average time it takes to grow, seed to saw, is approximately 13 years.
His company, which is more than 60 years old, has also established an annual process to assure they will have no shortage.
“We have always planted by the thousands, and we’ve been in business so long that we always adjust to make sure we will have enough,” said Hartikka. “In other parts of the country, farmers haven’t been so fortunate.”
Hundley said the recession isn’t the only reason for the price increase nationally.
Prices are hard to predict, he said, but with the 10 years prior to 2016 showing little to no change in prices, economic growth would dictate an eventual increase in order for the industry to stay vibrant and keep up with inflation.
Prices could go up in the local markets, an increase that would be overdue after many farms have maintained the same price for over a decade, but it hasn’t happened yet. Hartikka is still offering a full-service purchase for his standard rate of $50.
In Stonington and Mystic, growers such as Sawyer said it was a difficult decision whether to increase the price or not, but ultimately Sawyer said he chose to keep his $35 price as is in an effort to continue to sell and make sure he is not left holding trees as unsold inventory.
“We considered an increase, especially with the growing costs for things like fuel for tractors and tree maintenance, but ultimately decided we could still turn a profit,” he said.
The difference people will experience this year may be the selection. Both Hartikka and Sawyer’s businesses offer a variety of evergreen choices including various firs and spruces, but early business has lead to many in the region already tagging or purchasing the taller, fuller trees.
Sawyer said the early Thanksgiving this year lead to more early tagging requests and pre-December purchases than he’s had in almost a decade.
“We have certainly had a lot of early interest,” he said.
Hartikka said thanks to the size of his farm, he doesn’t anticipate having issues with selection, but noted that those looking for a specific tree should consider purchasing it soon because the tallest and fullest of some varieties could sell out soon.
Although the Northeast appears somewhat exempt from the most recent increases, expect prices to go up at least slightly in the near future.
Over the past two years, southern New England experienced drought conditions that left especially smaller farms unable to produce the same number of young trees as they normally would. Sawyer said his farm was one of those impacted and is expecting a tight supply down the road as a result.
In addition, both Sawyer and Hartikka said that as the industry continues to age, some of those who helped form the industry are leaving, leading some farms to close and others to be sold for alternative use.
“There are a lot of adjustments that will need to be made, and we need a new generation of growers to take interest,” Hartikka said. “For many of us still active, we are retirement age and won’t be around much longer. Many would like to pass the business on to their children, but they don’t always want them.”