Iowa Public Television


Drought Hits Christmas Tree Growers

posted on December 19, 2012

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Good news: The Mayans were wrong and the world did NOT end on December 21st. Winter, however, arrived ahead of schedule, as a major blizzard roared across the Midwest.

The storm dumped more than a foot of snow on parts of Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan Thursday, forcing commercial airlines to cancel 1,000 flights. The combination of heavy snow, and 50 mile-per-hour winds resulted in whiteout conditions for motorists and the first major blizzard of winter is blamed for deaths in at least five states.

On a more positive note – depending upon your persuasion – the blizzard all but guarantees a White Christmas for those in its path.

The storm also brought much-needed moisture to a region weathering the worst drought in five decades. Prior to the storm’s arrival, Market to Market visited a pair of Christmas Tree Farms. And as David Miller discovered, Christmas tree growers – like many other farmers and ranchers – endured significant losses this year due to drought.

When the Capitol Christmas tree was selected from the White River National Forest in Colorado, the people who chose the 73 foot-tall Engelmann spruce were faced with the same trials and tribulations as this family at a local Christmas tree farm in Iowa. While they won’t be using a chainsaw or need a crane to get their tree to the car, the concept is the same. But that is where the similarities end. For families making a selection at one of what USDA estimates are nearly 2,600 cut-your-own Christmas tree farms across the United States, the rewards may be greater.

Gary Harman,Walnut Ridge Farm: “It’s fun. There’s nothin’ better than seein’ a 4 or 5 year old child going out and cutting a tree and bring it up.  It doesn’t make any difference. The weather can be the crappiest weather imaginable…it can be cold, the wind blowin’, snow on the ground, they’re still smilin’. Their parents may not be smilin’ so much but the kids are happy. That’s what makes it all worthwhile."

Gary Harman planted his first trees just north of Indianola, Iowa in 1977. Six years later when the crop was ready to harvest Harmon and his wife, Jane, sold eight trees. From those meager beginnings, Harman’s Walnut Ridge Farm has grown into a 40,000 tree operation.

Harman believes this operation is no different than any other farm. His crop was impacted by the 2012 drought every bit as much as his neighbors corn and soybeans.

Gary Harman,Walnut Ridge Farm: “We planted about 10,500 trees last year…. The trees don’t like the hot dry weather any better than the people do.  The seedlings we planted this spring, we had about 20 percent survival. And the bigger trees, we’ve lost bigger trees as well.  The firs, the firs don’t take the climate that we dealt with, the dry and the hot, as well as what the pines do.”

Harman tried to save the saplings by spraying them with chemicals to hold in what little moisture was available, but 8,000 of the young trees withered away and died.

According to the University of Illinois’ Extension, America’s first sales of fresh-cut Christmas trees took place in the mid-1800s. Before then, the yuletide trek to cut down a tree for the living room took place in nearby forests. Today, nearly all live Christmas trees come from 12,000 farms located in all 50 states. In 2011, more than 30 million live Christmas trees were marketed at a retail value of over $1billion.

Gary Harman, Walnut Ridge Farm: “Yeah, lots of folks think it’s plant a tree, wait 6 or 8 years and it turns into money. There’s just a bit more to it than that.  We plant tiny seedlings in the spring, herbicide, fertilizer, keep an eye on the bugs, mow…It’s a fulltime job. I’m basically the only one except during planting season.”

Harman, a retired agricultural chemical salesman, gets help when he needs it from his wife, son Todd and a few friends.

Most Christmas tree farms feature some kind of value-added attraction. Early in December, on what is typically his busiest day of the year, Harman has a neighbor bring a horse-drawn hayrack to his already popular cut-your-own operation.

Tim Salazar, West Des Moines, Iowa: “I’m really glad the trees are looking good with the drought and stuff. I was a little worried.”

The Salazar and Burch families from nearby West Des Moines, Iowa came to Walnut Ridge to find a fresh cut tree.

Mike and Dana Burch, West Des Moines, Iowa: “I like the fresh cut. It brings the family together. It’s fun.”

While Salazar selected a precut tree from one of Harman’s fellow growers in Virginia, the Burch families chose to harvest two out of the Walnut Ridge inventory.

Thirty-five miles north in Bondurant, Iowa Vern Rettig supplements his 150 acres of row crops with several acres of Christmas trees.

Vern Rettig, Rettig’s Tree Farm: “We started the Christmas tree farm because we had rented the rough ground out as pasture ground.  I guess a couple of years ago, a friend of mine, he put cattle in and he weighed them when he put them in and he weighed them when he took them out and they lost weight. So we thought we’d better try doing something better than that.“

Along with his wife Sarah, the Rettigs have been growing Christmas trees for more than 40 years and one of the perks they offer their customers is the ability to preselect a tree in late fall.

Kevin and Loreen Johnson, Newton, Iowa: “They told us we could come out and pick it up after Thanksgiving.”

While the Johnsons picked out their tree earlier this season, couples like Tim and Jane Sullivan, are willing to wander across the farms 12 acres seeking the perfect tree. The couple has been a repeat customer at this smaller 9,000 tree operation for more than 15 years.

Tim Sullivan, Urbandale, Iowa: “The experience. Just, it’s a lot more enjoyable when you bag your own and bring it home.”

Sue Sullivan, Urbandale, Iowa: “And it stays so fresh for so long too.  Lots of times I almost feel bad taking it down in early January because it’s still so fresh.”

Rettig, who is secretary of the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association, has learned a lot since he first planted trees in the early 70s.

Vern Rettig, Rettig’s Tree Farm: “We planted Norway Spruce and it was a big mistake. We found out they don’t hold their needles very well. So we had a lot of angry customers. We had a lot of things to learn and we’re still learning.”

One of the things Rettig learned is that younger pines are especially vulnerable to drought. As the drought of 2012 intensified he had the arduous task of watering 1,500 saplings he planted in the spring.

Vern Rettig, Rettig’s Tree farm: “The drought has not forced us to raise prices.  I believe in being reasonable on prices. I want everybody that comes here to feel like they got a good deal.”

Rettig and Harman say their work is worth the rewards of helping families continue what, in many cases, has been a tradition for decades.

Both growers will replace trees that were lost to drought, but neither plans to raise his prices, ensuring that live Christmas trees will remain part of the holidays for years to come.

On behalf of America’s Christmas tree producers and everyone at Market to Market, best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season.

Tags: Christmas Tree Growers Association Christmas Trees cut your own cut-your-own farmers


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