It's never too early to think about Christmas
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. In the dog days of August, Christmas tree farmers are surrounded by tannenbaum instead of tanning bodies. But they aren't thinking about snowflakes and sleigh rides.
There's no Christmas in July for tree farmers, says Daniel Cassens, professor of forestry at Purdue University. Tree farming is a lot harder than it looks.
"Working on a Christmas tree farm in the summer is hot, dirty, buggy work," he says. "Every day, we pretty much say, 'let's get this done as quickly as possible.'"
In addition to his duties at Purdue, Cassens operates a medium-sized choose-and-cut Christmas tree business.
Christmas tree farming looks easy to those who haven't tried it: Put the trees in the ground, then come back a few years later to harvest them and send them to market. The more unpleasant reality is that producing the perfect, cone-shaped trees that consumers demand requires hard work almost every month of the year.
It's in the summer months of June, July and August when a Christmas tree farmer really earns his money. That's the peak season for shaping trees. To a large extent, it's the shape of the tree that determines whether or not it will be sold in December. Scotch pine and white pine are shaped in June and July when they are producing buds; fir trees and spruces can be sheared any time during the summer.
Like most choose-and-cut operators, Cassens shears his trees by hand; he may shape as many as 15,000 trees in the summer months. "Some trees, such as Scotch pine and white pine, can shoot out lateral branches or a leader that can be three or four feet long," he says. "If you don't trim those off, the trees really look scraggly. It takes 20 or 30 swings of the knife to shape a tree."
Although some large commercial growers use gasoline-powered shears, which cut the tree branches in a straight line, Cassens says that most growers prefer shaping the trees by hand to achieve a more natural look. Cassens uses a three-foot-long serrated knife that resembles a sword to shape the trees. "It's pretty much of an art," he says. "You have to look at the tree and kind of size it up and shear around the tree maintaining that taper as you go. Everyone develops his or her own knack for it. Trees look different from grower to grower by the shearing technique used."
The summer isn't the only busy season on a Christmas tree farmer's calendar. In March and April, tree farmers are busy planting new trees. Then, as soon as the grass and weeds begin to grow, the areas around the trees must be mowed. "The biggest thing is to try to control weeds and grasses to eliminate competition with these trees," Cassens says. "Anything under the tree competes with the lower branches and you don't have a full tree at the bottom.
"You also mow for fire prevention. Once everything dries out in the late summer and fall, the trees are pretty volatile."
In the late summer of August and September, some growers apply a green colorant to the trees. "After that first frost hits, the trees begin to turn a bit yellow and their color starts to go downhill," Cassens says. "The colorant is really just latex paint, and it's applied with a standard commercial sprayer."
For large, commercial Christmas tree growers, the initial harvest can begin in October. "It probably shouldn't, but it does," Cassens says. "They have to ship the trees and build up an inventory."
For choose-and-cut operators, harvest begins when people come to cut the trees in the field, which is often the day after Thanksgiving. "The biggest weekend for sales is the first weekend in December. The bigger, higher-quality trees go out early, and then the standard trees are sold later. If people are going to put up a big tree, they come out and buy it early so they can enjoy it."
Even after the holidays are over, a Christmas tree farmer can't rest. "January, February and March are the time for culling trees," Cassens says. "I usually go through and remove the low-value trees that probably aren't going to sell anyway."
During this summer's farm crisis of record low prices for corn and soybeans, some farmers may be considering planting Christmas trees next year instead, but William Hoover, professor of forestry economics at Purdue, says that farmers should look at everything that's involved.
"Right now the returns per acre are better for Christmas tree farming than for corn or soybeans," he says. "But in the Midwest it takes six to seven years to grow a stand of Christmas trees, and three years from now corn prices may be three times as high as they are today. And it's a labor-intensive type of farming."
Still, for some farmers, growing Christmas trees may be a good decision. "Diversification is always good, and Christmas tree farming does offer an opportunity to employ family members," Hoover says. "If it is done right it can be profitable, but you have to stick with it. You can't work on it for a year and then come back to it and expect to find anything of any worth."
Hoover says the best situation would be a farm near an urban center that can draw plenty of customers. "The best approach is to serve the local community with a choose-and-cut operation," Hoover says. "This also provides an opportunity to sell crafts, such as wreaths or garland."
Cassens says that tree farmers typically plant 800 trees to an acre. "Farmer's aren't going to plant a lot of corn acreage into trees," he says. "Anyone interested in growing Christmas trees should start out small. You don't want to plant 10 acres of trees your first year."
More information about Christmas tree growers is available from the National Association of Christmas Tree Growers, 1000 Executive Parkway, Suite 220, St. Louis, Mo. 63141-6372, phone (314) 205-0944.
Sources: Dan Cassens, (765) 494-3644; email@example.com
William Hoover, (765) 494-3580; firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; email@example.comPHOTO CAPTION:
Daniel Cassens, professor of forestry at Purdue, spends much of the summer hard at work on his Christmas tree farm in Tippecanoe County, Ind. Cassens says that growing Christmas trees requires effort throughout the year. (Purdue Ag Communications Photo by Tom Campbell)
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