Christmas tree sales strong in Delaware

James Bartsch uses a tree shaker to a freely cut tree at Fir Tree Acres in Magnolia on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Christmas trees have changed over the years — the species, the size, the decorations, even whether the tree is alive.

But they’ve remained a widespread holiday tradition in the United States for at least a century.

According to a survey conducted by Nielsen on behalf of the American Christmas Tree Association, about 80 percent of households have at least one Christmas tree during the winter holidays.

While a majority of those trees are artificial, demand for a real pine, fir or spruce remains strong despite scarcities elsewhere in the country, growers in Delaware say.

“I’m looking at our farm and we’ve had an increase in sales this year over last year, and I think it’s just because we brought in more precut trees and we’ve had more trees to offer people,” said Jim Landis of Landis Tree Farm.

Roseann Conlon of Turning Pointe Farm sounded a similar note.

“We have been relying on our own Christmas tree field, but we have had two Christmas trees farms close this past year and so we’ve really been saturated with customers, which has been very nice,” said Ms. Conlon, who owns the Hartly-area farm.

James Bartsch ties down a freely cut tree to a car roof at Fir Tree Acres in Magnolia on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

While Pat Dyer, owner of Dyer’s Tree Farm, wasn’t sure exactly how many trees he’s sold, it’s apparently been a good season.

“I’m out of trees,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal claimed earlier this month some customers around the country have struggled to find trees, as many sellers simply have fewer offerings. The long recession of recent years is partly to blame, the paper noted.

Mr. Landis said the Christmas tree business had been booming for about a decade, leading to more growers. However, a “glut” of trees in North Carolina caused prices to drop and some farmers to go out of business.

Because trees take about eight to 10 years to grow — depending on the species — the impact is just being felt now.

North Carolina, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is one of the largest tree-producing states in the country, accounting for one-fifth of all Christmas trees.

Fortunately for Delawareans, there still seems to be a solid supply of Christmas trees in the First State.

Ms. Conlon estimated her farm has sold about 500 trees, while Mr. Dyer pegged his sales at around 150. Mike Berry of Berry Patch Christmas Tree Farm reported comparatively smaller transactions that nonetheless topped previous years’ sales.

“Every year it’s gone up,” he said. “It was 30, 32, 35. This year it’s already at 35.”

Mr. Landis declined to say how many trees he’s sold, but it’s only a fraction of the ones currently growing in his field. He estimated his farm is growing around 10,000 trees, though only 1,000 or so are mature enough to be sold.

The winter of 2009-2010 brought lots of rain and snow, killing around 5,400 of his trees, Mr. Landis said. Storms in 2012 resulted in more trees dying.

Because of that bad weather he expects to have to continue importing trees to boost his sales.

Mr. Landis is president of the Delaware Christmas Tree Growers Association. The association lists 14 member farms, all located below the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, the traditional divider of the state’s more urban northern portion and the rural downstate area.

Landis Tree Farm, located in Harbeson, grows Douglas firs, eastern white pines, white spruces, Norway spruces, Canaan firs and white firs. It also brings in Fraser firs from Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which have climates that are more conducive to the species.

“Some of our growers have tried Fraser firs,” Mr. Landis said, but they’ve had “moderate to little success.”

Fraser firs prefer more mountainous areas, something which Delaware — one of the flattest states in the union — does not exactly have in abundance.
About half the trees sold by Landis Tree Farm this year are ones it has grown, with the remaining half being purchased in other states.

For Turning Pointe Farm, Norway spruces have been the most popular tree this year.

“People seemed to prefer the profile of the tree. They have very wide skirts,” Ms. Conlon said.

Turning Pointe Farm purchased some Fraser firs from North Carolina, but evidently not enough, because they sold out just after Thanksgiving in the first days the farm was open for the year.

Mr. Berry has found Douglas firs to be the most popular, while Mr. Dyer experienced solid sales of Douglas firs, Norway spruces and blue spruces.
A rainy 2016 meant trees grew so much that Berry Patch Christmas Tree Farm ended up chopping down some spruces and firs several feet from the ground, leaving large stumps sticking out, Mr. Berry said.

Berry Patch Christmas has about 850 trees growing in the field right now, and it purchased 25 precut trees to supplement the offerings, Mr. Berry said.

For the owners of Christmas tree farms in the First State, growing and selling pines, firs and spruces is a passion, often one either passed down through the family or picked up in retirement.

Turning Pointe Farm was started in 1986, with Tom and Roseann Conlon hoping it would keep them busy in retirement.

That it has — growing trees is a time-consuming process that requires a great deal of care.

“It’s not something for someone who has short-term gains in mind,” Ms. Conlon said.

Landis Tree Farm has similar origins.

The Landises have owned the land where the trees now grow for 30 years, but their connection to Christmas flora is older. In fact, you might say sap is in their blood.

About a century ago, a dedicated landscaper by the name of Isaac Joles harvested Christmas trees in northern Wisconsin and sold them to friends and neighbors. That tradition was passed down to Mr. Joles’ son-in-law, the father of Mr. Landis’ wife, Lorna.

“One day my wife and I said to each other, ‘You know, this would be kind of a neat retirement project to have,’” Mr. Landis said.

It’s certainly not an exceedingly lucrative business: Mr. Landis and his wife hope to take a cruise out of their profits from the farm but haven’t been able to do so thus far.

“Virtually every cent that we make, this goes right back into the farm,” Mr. Landis said.

He’s hoping to pass the farm down to his children in the future.

Mike Berry and his wife, Betty, moved from Virginia to Hartly in 2014. They bought an established farm in Hartly to be closer to their children, who live in New Jersey.

“We meet a lot of good people,” Mr. Berry said. “We’re not in it to make money.”

Mr. Dyer’s farm was originally run by a neighbor whom Mr. Dyer assisted. After the owner died around 1977, he purchased the farm.

Raising trees is tough work and many trees die before they are ready to be sold, Mr. Dyer said.

Nonetheless, he’s stuck with it.

“I don’t have enough trees for a business and too many for a hobby,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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