Area tree farmers hope prices hold, despite glut Paying for the joy of cutting one's own

December 18, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

A glut of evergreens has sent retail Christmas tree prices to their lowest level in years, but Baltimore-area tree growers are betting that their customers will still pay top price to go out and cut a fresh, Maryland-grown tree.

While some chain stores are offering trees for less than $10, prices at cut-your-own tree farms are double or triple that amount. Growers can resist the temptation to slash prices for a number of reasons, said Carville Akehurst, director of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association.

First of all, the cut-your-own farms offer not only a tree, but an event, he said. "People will go out and roam around looking at trees for two or three hours," he said.

"It's a family-type experience," agreed Ann McConaughy, owner of the Maranatha Tree Farm in White Hall. "It's very different than going to the corner retail lot."

The second advantage that choose-and-cut operators have over the retail lots is that an unpurchased tree remains in the field to grow another year.

Of course, that advantage can stretch only so far. "No one is going to buy a 20-foot tree," said George Roche, marketing and agriculture development specialist at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

And trees on Maryland farms have been getting taller, evidence that the farms have been affected by the glut of trees during the last several years, he said.

At one time, it was difficult to find a tree over 12 feet tall, Mr. Roche recalled. Now, nearly every farm offers trees 12 feet or taller.

"There's no question about it. There are too many trees on the market," he said.

"Everybody in the world is growing Christmas trees," agreed Albert Dunston, who operates a tree farm near Jacksonville in northern Baltimore County. A few years ago, the money Mr. Dunston made on Christmas sales provided a comfortable living for the entire year.

Not any more. Business is down this year and he is thinking about growing a different kind of crop. "There is too much competition," he complained.

Only a few Marylanders were growing Christmas trees when Mr. Dunston started in the business 31 years ago. Today there are about 300 growers.

While some of the Maryland growers are feeling the pinch of competition, their immediate prospects are better than are those of growers in Canada, the U.S. Northwest, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, who have raised more trees than they can sell. Those growers are the sources of cheap trees in the stores and many of them are selling at a loss this year, Mr. Roche said.

Oscar Nicholson Jr., president of the Nicholson Nursery Inc. in Bristol, said he expects business this year to be about the same as last year, but less than in 1988, before the recession and tree glut.

He has had a number of repeat customers this year and they don't seem to mind the prices of his trees, which start at $29.95, he said. "Last weekend was great."

With the slump in the landscaping industry, Christmas tree sales have become an increasing part of Mr. Nicholson's livelihood, he said.

Even the growth of artificial Christmas tree sales seems not to have bothered Maryland tree growers. While artificial tree sales have increased nationally over the past several years, sales at the state's Christmas tree farms have been steady in recent years after strong growth through the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Akehurst said.

Growing Christmas trees takes patience and planning. The trees are planted as seedlings no bigger than cigarettes, and must grow for five to 12 years, depending on the variety, before they are ready to sell.

"This is a business, not a hobby like it used to be in the 1950s," Mr. Roche said.

Although maintaining a Christmas tree farm is work, it also is enjoyable, said Robert Giffen, owner of Masque Christmas Tree farm in Annapolis. "It's real nice," he said. "Everybody is happy and laughing when they come here."

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