Families head to farms to cut the perfect Christmas tree

On The Farm

December 25, 2005|By TED SHELSBY

Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. "It should be," muses my friend, "twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star." The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives 30 hatchet strokes before it keels over with a creaking rending cry.

- Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory

The joy of cutting one's own Christmas tree that so many vicariously relive each year through this author's short story was played out across Maryland in recent weeks.

Bundled up in warm coats and snug-fitting ski caps, residents took to the field with hatchet or saw in hand in search of the just-right tree.

Maryland farmers make it a lot easier for tree hunters these days. There are more than 200 farms scattered across Maryland that open their lanes to people wishing to cut their own trees.

"Christmas trees are still a tiny part of the state's agriculture industry," said Lewis R. Riley, agriculture secretary. "Many started out as hobby farms. But trees have become the livelihood of many small farms in the state."

Tree farms have become entertainment for shoppers, Riley said. Many families make a day of it, bringing a picnic lunch or just a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee to chase the chill as they search for the right pine, Douglas fir or spruce to fill a spot in their living rooms.

The department's best picture of the size of the industry comes from its agriculture census of 2002.

"That's the only information we have," said Norman Bennett, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistics service for Maryland.

In 1997, when the previous census of agriculture was completed, he said, Christmas trees were not considered part of agriculture.

According to Bennett, there were 3,205 acres of trees on 263 farms in the state in 2002. Tree sales that year totaled $2.3 million.

Carroll County's 30 tree farms had sales of $385,000 that year. Garrett County had 15 farms and sales of $358,000.

Bennett said Montgomery County had 18 farms, but for unexplained reasons it did not report the dollar value of sales. Baltimore County's 21 farms had sales of $155,000. Frederick County's 19 farms produced $133,000, and Harford County reported only 10 farms but sales of $220,000.

"My guess is that Harford had some high-valued trees," Bennett said.

Wayne Thomas is owner of Thomas Tree Farm in Manchester and president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association.

He estimates tree farms in Maryland accounted for about 95,000 to 100,000 of the Christmas trees sold in the state this year.

The largest farm, covering about 350 acres, is near Oakland, Thomas said. "The typical tree farm is 25 to 30 acres."

He said that most of the wholesale farms, those that cut trees and ship them to market, are in the western part of the state. The majority of the choose-and-cut farms are closer to the population center of the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Some of the cut trees sold at parking lots come from as far away as North Carolina or Canada, said Thomas.

"The advantage of a choose-and-cut farm is that you know you are getting a fresh tree," he said.

Some of the cut trees, brought in from others states, are harvested as early as the second week of October, he said.

While the bulk of the sales take place between the weekend after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, Thomas said he would expect to sell one or two trees today.

ted.shelsby@baltsun.com

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