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Drought had little impact on Christmas tree prices

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Posted: Saturday, December 8, 2012 9:08 pm

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — That Christmas tree you plan to go out and buy this weekend should be similar in price to last year, if not the same price.

That’s what local Christmas tree growers are saying, despite the drought conditions from spring and summer that cost some local farms thousands of Christmas trees.

In some cases, though, the drought had little effect.

"It (the drought) didn’t bother ours this year," said Bob Feitz, of Feitz Tree Farm in Lakeville, Ind. "Trees are not like tomatoes. There is a delayed reaction. There may be more impact next year than this year."

At the northern end of Michiana, Brenda Butler, of Butler Tree Farm in Dowagiac, Mich., expressed similar opinions as far as prices being affected this year.

"We should have (raised the prices)," Butler told the South Bend Tribune, noting that 98 percent of the trees the farm planted after last year’s harvest did not survive because of the drought. "But we try to keep things as close as possible to last year.

"We were hit just like everybody else with the drought. As long as we can balance it out some other ways," prices can be maintained, she added.

But if the drought continues into a second year, they may have to adjust their prices, Butler said.

Feitz said the Christmas tree part of his business is winding down and he sells only about 100 Christmas trees each year to longtime customers, but his farm did lose about one-third of the 100 they planted after last year’s harvest.

Butler Tree Farm sells eight different varieties of trees, ranging from $25 for a Scots pine to $85 for a Fraser fir, the latter of which Butler calls "the Cadillac of trees."

The Dowagiac farm is known for selling not just the trees but a total family experience, including cutting down the tree (in most cases), visiting Santa and taking in other family offerings.

"Our business is our name and we want to be known as a top-quality, very fair," she said. "And we want to do things the right way. So we’ve tried to muddle through this year."

Part of the reason they can do that is that Christmas trees are grown on a six- to eight-year cycle.

"What we’ve discovered here is that mature trees are really able to handle a drought quite well," Marsha Gray, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, said. "If you had trees in your yard, they didn’t all die."

But with younger trees, the story can be a different one.

"Really, where we have had issues is in the seedlings, the new plantings," Gray said. "Most have irrigation so their farms are doing well.

"That really minimized the loss in the seedlings. But there will be plenty to replant."

But not all farms were as fortunate. And those that don’t irrigate, such as J&K’s Tree Farm in North Liberty, Ind., were hit hard in the Christmas tree realm.

Joe Long, owner of J&K’s, has been in the business for more than two decades. He said he lost several thousand Christmas trees, most in the popular Fraser fir variety.

"We are trying to accommodate what people want for Christmas trees and the Fraser fir is a hot market," Long said. "But Fraser fir are what I call a borderline tree for northern Indiana.

"They are used to growing at about 2,500 feet, and we aren’t even close to that. They like cooler conditions than what we have and if we have a hot, dry summer, they are affected.

"And if they have a really dry summer, they just die, unless you have irrigation on them. I’ve put them in the ground for 25 years and counted on natural rain."

Still, though he may run short on the trees, he’s offering them at prices similar to a year ago — $25 to $40, depending on the height.

He also offers Fraser firs that customers cut down themselves at any height for $18.

He, too, said trees will be affected next year and even for a few more years because of current dry weather.

"Next year their growth is going to be affected," he said. "You don’t get the bud sets. It’s not good this year because of last year and it’s going to get worse."

Shortages will happen locally down the road, he said. "Trees that were 3 to 4 feet tall that were planted three years ago, we lost them. In three years you won’t have those trees that are 6-feet tall."

However, Gray said, the eight-year cycle also minimized the effects.

"Because it’s an eight-year cycle it gives us that many years to make up the difference," Gray said. "It takes about eight years to grow a standard size Christmas tree."

Tree farms might make up for the loss by not only replanting but replanting a larger crop, and even alter trimming methods to boost the trees’ growth, she said.

There’s also one other reason for consistent prices.

"It’s very challenging for the growers," Gray said, "because their input price goes up but there’s a lot of oversupply in other parts of the country. And that just pushes prices down."

Because of the big box stores, among other sellers, "the tree industry has not had a significant price increase for more than 15 years," Gray said.

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