Put down ax, pick up a mouse

Christmas tree business lights up, too, on the Web



There is nothing quite like going to a Christmas tree farm and chopping down your own tree. But in the age of the Internet, there is another straight-from-the-farm option: sitting at your computer and dialing up a tree.

Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association (www.realchristmastrees.org), says 300 of the 1,600 growers in his group are now selling online. Among them are Nigel and Debbie Manley at the Rocks, a Christmas tree farm in Bethlehem, N.H. For the last nine years, they have taken orders over the Internet (at www.therocks.org) for holiday delivery of trees and other greenery.

"We've sent wreaths to every state, and trees to every state except Alaska and Hawaii," Nigel Manley said. "We can ship it cheaper than you can buy it on a street corner." A Fraser fir that rises 6 feet, for instance, costs $40, and shipping is $20 or so.

And just how do you send a 6-foot tree across country?

"We have a machine that we put a [wax-lined] box into that holds the box tight, and we put a metal funnel on one end, and fasten the bottom of the tree to a 4,200-pound winch," said Nigel Manley, who started the Rocks 18 years ago on land owned by the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Orders go out once a week, and proceeds from tree sales help support the society.

Enabling people to order a tree online was not what Bill Dennis had in mind when he started the Captain Jack Christmas Tree Farm Network (www.christmas-tree.com) in 1994. A tree farm owner in Ankeny, Iowa, Dennis had been dabbling with computers for some time and saw the promise of the Web early on. He bought the domain Christmas-Tree.com initially for himself, but ultimately carved out a new business, making the site a clearinghouse where tree farmers could offer their wares.

Hal Gimlin, who with his family owns Omni Farm (www.omnifarm.com) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, acknowledges that ordering online is easy for the consumer and generates new business for the farmer. But that does not equal easy money, he said.

"One of the problems with online sales is that it's a heavy product," said Gimlin, who said he sells about 2,000 trees annually via the Internet. "Victoria's Secret could sell you a $100 nightgown made out of silk that would weigh 3 ounces. My 7-foot tree is 60 pounds."

Despite the ardor and the cost of packing trees, Gimlin says it is worth it. For one thing, he says, online and mail-order customers are loyal - and usually willing to pay the price.

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