Producing the perfect fir

Christmas tree farmers prepare for the buying season and consumers' whims

November 20, 2005|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The weekend after Thanksgiving is more than a three-day stretch riddled with retail shopping chaos.

For many, it's the time to gather the family for the annual trip through the rolling hills of Harford County's countryside to visit one of seven Christmas tree farms.

Many tree-hunters prefer to cut their own, seeking to capture the tradition of an old-fashioned Christmas. But those who want the most popular variety - the Fraser fir - often must walk past the rows of homegrown evergreens and grab a pre-cut tree imported from North Carolina, the optimal region for growing Frasers.

Local tree farmers say they prefer to sell trees they grow. But the popularity of the Fraser, coupled with the difficulty of growing it in Maryland, has led many farmers to boost their inventory of imported trees.

"Frasers are the most expensive as well as the most popular," said Wayne Thomas, president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, which has 100 members. "It's the tree that the most people ask for because it's the traditional Christmas tree. They have great needle retention and rigid branches which are dense and spaced well for placing ornaments."

Last year, 27.1 million Frasers were sold nationwide, accounting for $1.15 billion in sales, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

The lone grower of Frasers in Harford is Jarrettsville Nurseries, which grows more than 10,000 of Maryland's 99,183 Christmas trees. Owner Charles St. Clair says he has more than 5,000 homegrown Frasers this year.

"I'm one of the lucky ones - I can grow Frasers on my property because it's elevated, which is one of the main requirements for growing the trees," he said. "But when you own a Christmas tree farm, and you can't grow the trees with the highest demand, and you want to keep your repeat customers, you have no choice but to offer people what they want whether you grow it on your farm or not."

St. Clair said the demand for Frasers was so high that some smaller operators have resorted to growing their own trees on land they buy or lease in North Carolina and bringing them to Maryland to sell.

"Most of the farmers are seeing small increases in their business because they've built their reputations based on the quality of the trees they offer," said the 82-year-old tree farmer, who has been in the business for 44 years. "So they want to be sure of what they put out to sale."

Not everyone is sold on the idea of Maryland-grown Frasers. Jim Wilson, owner of Evergreen Farm in Havre de Grace, purchases about 500 Frasers from out of state. He thinks the best trees are grown in North Carolina.

"People can't grow quality Frasers in Maryland," said Wilson. "If a Fraser isn't grown in the mountains, it doesn't have the same color and the density, and it isn't as good. Frasers are the tree of choice because they have all the characteristics people look for in a Christmas tree, and I sell every single one I buy. I'm not losing business by purchasing trees from out of state."

Other popular trees in Maryland include the balsam fir, Douglas fir, noble fir, Scotch pine and white pine, local farmers say.

Although some farmers think the white pine has lost some of its popularity in recent years, Wilma Muir, co-owner of Deer Creek Valley Tree Farm in Street, said she still sees a steady flow of customers buying the tree.

"The white pine has to be decorated with ornaments and decorations inside the tree," said Muir. "The ornaments will hang down too much if they aren't hung correctly. But some people just love their look, so we always try to tell them to use light ornaments on their tree or to hang the heavier ones deep inside the branches."

Though most Maryland farmers have seen an increase in sales over the past three years, three Harford farms closed this year because of declining sales, according to the state association.

Despite closings, Harford's tree farm business remains strong, said John Sullivan III, agriculture coordinator for the county.

"Christmas trees are a high-value crop with a condensed season," said Sullivan. "This makes it different than other agricultural enterprises. They have a short window of time where they need work and become labor-intensive, such as when they are pruned or when pesticides and herbicides are laid. Then they have down time until they're ready to be sold. This appeals to the farmers."

Christmas Tree Farms

Open for business Friday

Evergreen Farm:

4219 Webster Road, Havre de Grace. 410-939-0659

Jarrettsville Nurseries:

4302 St. Clair Bridge Road, Jarrettsville. 410-557-9677

Open for business Saturday

Applewood Farm:

4435 Prospect Road, Whiteford. 410-836-1140

Deer Creek Valley Tree Farm:

3744 Ady Road, Street. 410-692-9793

Environmental Evergreens:

3631 Berkley Road, Darlington. 410-457-4766

Hickory Hill Tree Farm:

3123 Ady Road, Street. 410-879-8733.

Wilson's Farm Market:

2826 Conowingo Road, Bel Air. 410-836-8980

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