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Fir real: Tighter supplies might needle tree buyers

12/02/20 Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Brothers Josh (left) and Matt Dumm of Kline's Tree Farm outside of Carrolltown carry a Christmas tree to be bailed for a customer on Wednesday afternoon.

Some area growers say their supply of live Christmas trees is down again this year.

The number of Christmas tree farms in central Pennsylvania has been declining, according to Thomas G. Ford, commercial horticulture educator for Penn State Extension.

“When you factor in the loss of the available Christmas tree inventory because of owner retirement and add in the loss of inventory due to diseases like needle cast, the supply of Christmas trees in our area will be relatively tight,” Ford said.

“Consumers should expect higher tree prices and possible shortages of some popular Christmas tree species at area Christmas tree lots and farms. Consumers should purchase their Christmas trees early in order to have the best selection of trees from which to choose.”

The median price of a real tree was $76.87 in 2019 compared to a median price of $66.43 in 2018 and $74.30 in 2017, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Limited selection

Some area growers said the supply is tight this year.

“My supply is very limited. I think it is because of strong sales of live trees over the last three years,” said Rick Koontz, owner of Sellers Tree Farm, Bedford.

“I’ve had a big demand on the retail side for live cut trees, probably because of the strong economy,” Koontz said.

John Tait, owner of Tait’s Tree Farm, Centre Hall, expects that he’s just barely going to have enough. “Seven years ago, we planted a certain amount of trees, now the supply barely meets the demand. Four years ago, we started to plant about 4,000 trees a year rather than about 2,000. In about three years, we will have plenty of trees.”

Others said they have a good supply.

“We have some new fields that are ready this year. We have a lot of beautiful high quality trees. We have three or four new fields that are more densely populated,” said Evelyn Bookhammer, co-owner of JB Tree Farm in Alexandria.

Maria Stoyka, secretary at Kline’s Tree Farm in Carrolltown, said she has a large variety of different trees and different sizes. “We offer precut as well as cut your own. Folks can do what they want.”

“Prices are up, but not a lot. There are not enough wholesale trees,” Tait said. “The market has gone from a glut to a major scarcity; it will be that way for a while. Seven years ago, there were so many around that what you got for wholesale hardly made it worthwhile to cut them down.”

Tait said, “In the last two years, prices for wholesale trees have at least doubled.”

Koontz said, “My prices are up a little bit for the bigger trees, not for the average -sized trees. I’ve been able to hold the line on the 5- to 8-foot trees, up a little on the 10-, 12-, 15-foot trees.

Firs a top pick

Firs remain the most popular trees in this area.

“Fraser firs are the most popular. When people think of a Christmas tree, they think Fraser fir. They are popular because their needles are softer with sturdy branches to better hold the ornaments,” Stoyka said.

Bookhammer said, “Douglas fir and Fraser fir are popular. They have soft needles and retain them for a long time and they smell good. Concolor fir has an incredibly good smell — they have a citriousy smell. Concolor is the most aromatic.”

Tait said Canaan fir is his most popular seller.

“Canaan firs — we have the most of those. People go out into the fields and they can’t tell the difference between them and the Fraser fir. They have lighter branches and a nice balsam fragrance,” Tait said.

Ford said the weather had an impact on the growing season.

“Most of the issues that are observed on Christmas tree farms stem from wet weather in April and May,” he said. “Needle cast diseases can infect the new growth of many Christmas tree species if we have prolonged periods of wet weather when fungal sporulation is occurring.”

As a result of the wet spring weather, some level of needle cast infection was observed by Pennsylvania Christmas tree growers. Trees infected with a needle cast disease typically are not made available to the consumer by area Christmas tree growers due to quality concerns.

Bad season

Local growers said weather did have an impact on their tree crop.

“This was one of the worst growing seasons I’ve ever had,” Koontz said. “In March and April, we had hot weather we should have had in mid-summer. Plants began to grow. May 7, 8 and 9 — for three nights — we had below freezing. That affected the Douglas fir; they bud out early. They were already growing and the freeze hit.

“Then in July, we had extreme heat with no rain. I lost seedlings two and three seasons old; that is rare. Once they are put in the ground, they are usually pretty bulletproof. The past summer with the heat and no rain did a number on us. It will set me back in nine to10 years. I lost two years of trees.”

Bookhammer said, “We lost quite a few seedlings that we planted in the spring. We had a high mortality rate with the Fraser fir seedlings. Most of the older ones survived.”

Growers said the COVID-19 pandemic has not had a significant impact on their business.

“I don’t know if it has affected us. So far we are at about the same levels last year as far as sales,” Tait said.

“We have been busy. It seems like maybe more people are choosing to cut their own to give them something to do. We also have had a lot of new customers who have had an artificial tree in the past. That may be an impact of COVID-19,” Stoyka said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.

A million cut

Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation for the number of Christmas tree farms, with more than 1,400 in the commonwealth. The tree farms account for nearly 31,000 acres and produce about 1 million cut trees each year. For each tree cut, on average three seedlings are planted. Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the United States in the number of Christmas trees cut each year, according to the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association.

The National Christmas Tree Association said sales of

live Christmas trees In the United States dropped from

32.8 million in 2018 to

26.2 million in 2019.

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