This business of Christmas

For some, yuletide revenue can mean survival or disaster for the entire year

December 24, 2006|By Hanah Cho and Tyeesha Dixon | Hanah Cho and Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporters

Christmas is important for many businesses.

But for some, it's everything.

Many seasonal entrepreneurs risk much of their profit or loss on the final month of the year. For them, the difference between a good year and a bad one can be washed out by a single wet weekend, small December crowds or fickle consumers who decide to spend their disposable holiday income elsewhere.

"Overall, the pressures are tremendous," said Asher Epstein, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "When you're trying to do a year's worth of sales in a condensed amount of time, you don't have an opportunity to slip up at all."

These are businesses that link much of their identities to the Christmas season even though many of them sell wares during other times of year. And while having a Christmas-related business might sound like fun to some, it's still a livelihood with plenty at stake.

The men who play Santa Claus, for example, get four to six weeks to earn their money. Christmas tree farms and reindeer zoos rely on clear weather on key weekends. And nurseries depend heavily on sales of ornaments, decorations and poinsettias to get them through the slower winter months.

Most retailers count on the holiday season for up to 20 percent or more of their income. But for something like Christmas tree sales, the holidays are literally everything.

Here are a few local spots and people who rely on Christmas more than most to earn a living:

Applewood Farm

The fall business started off slowly this year for Applewood Farm in Whiteford, whose pumpkin harvest was practically ruined by a weird mixture of wet and dry weather during the summer.

So, there was much more riding on its Christmas business, which includes growing and selling Christmas trees as well as providing family attractions, including live reindeer shows. That business accounts for 60 percent of annual sales at the farm -- 100 acres straddling the Mason-Dixon Line in Harford County and southern Pennsylvania.

The farm is open just four weekends during the Christmas season. So, if the weather doesn't cooperate, the business can lose 12 percent of sales in one day. Even a big football game can cut into traffic.

"The difference is getting the bills paid or not paid," said farm owner Brian Adelhardt. "On good years, we get the bills paid."

The farm was a bustle of activity on a recent Saturday morning as parents and children petted reindeer and took pictures with the animals.

Brian and Pat Adelhardt bought the farm in 1974 and intended to raise beef cattle. But grain prices were too high, so they grew and sold grain.

A few years later, the Christmas business began, almost on a whim, when neighbors asked to buy some trees that had been planted on the property for reforestation. As the business grew, the Adelhardts added attractions such as model train displays, a petting zoo and pony, train and carriage rides. The pumpkin business was added 10 years ago.

Its featured attraction is four reindeer -- the first was added on the farm in 1997 to supplement its tree business. (They stay on the Pennsylvania side of Adelhardt's property because reindeer are not allowed to live in Maryland, a ban that has been in place since the 1980s.)

A growing number of Christmas tree farms have followed Adelhardt's lead by adding pumpkins and other attractions to boost the core business, said Ron Hudler, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association.

"Those people are in the entertainment business. They need to give the kids a candy cane, hot chocolate and have a place where they can warm their hands or buy doughnuts or a cup of coffee," he said.

The National Christmas Tree Association said 32.8 million households spent $1.4 billion to buy real trees last year -- up from $1.2 billion in sales in 2004. The average cost of a tree was $41.90. Natural trees represent 78 percent of the market.

Brian Adelhardt said he and his wife didn't go into the business to get rich. Admission costs $3 per person; pony, carriage and train rides cost an additional $3 each. Adelhardt declined to reveal annual sales figures.

This Christmas season, the mostly mild weather brought big crowds. One weekend saw 2,500 visitors.

And plans for this year to be the farm's last Christmas have been scrapped. The couple planned to retire after 29 years, and their son, Bryce, wanted to continue only the farm's pumpkin business. But a successful run and encouragement from customers this season have convinced Bryce Adelhardt otherwise.

So, the farm's annual after-Christmas reindeer program Wednesday will not be its finale.

"I thought it would be a shame with all the hard work they put into it to stop doing it," said Bryce Adelhardt, 26, who grew up and worked on the farm. "I'll keep doing it."

Valley View Farms

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