Christmas tree farms branching out

November 23, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Charles St. Clair Sr. has been growing Christmas trees since World War II.

He began the business not only to meet the demand for local trees, but also because he enjoys being a part of the tradition of finding a tree, he said.

"I like the camaraderie and joy people have when they come to get a Christmas tree," said St. Clair, 85.

But now it takes more than camaraderie and trees to draw customers. With surging artificial tree sales and roadside tree stands popping up all over the county, local farmers are being forced to diversify. While some of the farms are up to the challenge, some tree farmers have decided to close their businesses.

When Joe Kaminkow opened his Christmas tree farm in Fallston nearly three decades ago, he had very little competition. There were a handful of tree farms and a couple of roadside stands, he said.

"When I started, we were the first in the county to offer a hayride to the trees," he said. "Now the farms offer horse-drawn carriage and train rides to get customers."

After 28 years, Kaminkow said, he is closing the tree farm because it is time-consuming and only becoming more so each year. He plans to open for two weekends, Dec. 6-7 and Dec. 13-14, to sell his remaining 600 trees.

George Sparks, owner of the Rock Hollow Tree Farm, started growing Douglas firs about 14 years ago. He said he didn't realize the time commitment involved.

"There are a lot of regulations involved with tree farming, and it's become more of a headache to deal with," Sparks said. "I used to be out there all day, but I'm not getting any younger. And I'm at the mercy of Mother Nature."

Sparks plans to sell his remaining trees and close in three or four years, he said. In the meantime, he's looking at alternative crops, such as jatropha, a tree that makes a seed containing oil that can be used in a biodiesel engine, he said.

In an effort to support the tree farms, Harford County officials are encouraging people to buy locally. The Harford County Division of Agriculture is also distributing a brochure that includes the eight tree farms in the county to promote local sales.

There has been a surge in roadside stands, said John Sullivan, director of the county's division of agriculture for the past two years.

"The roadside stands are popping up more with trees that not only come from outside the county, but from outside the state," Sullivan said. "This affects local tree sales a little bit."

In recent years, farms were the main source of tree sales. But in 2007, 23 percent of all tree sales nationwide were made at chain stores, with only 21 percent being sold at tree farms, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

One of the biggest competitions the tree farms face is the reintroduction of artificial trees in the past decade. Sales of artificial tree almost doubled, with 9.6 million sold in 2006 and 17.4 million sold in 2007, while sales of real trees increased about 2.7 million during the same time, according to the tree association.

Despite competition, there has been a growth in local tree sales, which Sullivan attributed to the tree farms diversifying.

Applewood Farm in Whiteford started in 1976 as a tree farm. Currently the farm grows and sells Douglas firs, for $5 per foot, and Scotch pine, blue spruce, and white spruce for $4 per foot; it also sells cut Frasier firs for $49.99.

The owners began adding activities that would help provide a family experience, said Brian Adelhardt, the owner.

"People come to us for Christmas trees, but usually not just Christmas trees," said Adelhardt, who grows about 15,000 trees. "As a matter of fact, there are people who drive up our lane with a Christmas tree on the hood of their car. So we know they are here for the entertainment."

About 11 years ago, Adelhardt bought reindeer and began offering a reindeer education program, but he needed income to cover the costs of caring for the animals, he said. With about 5,000 people visiting the farm each Christmas season, he began charging an admission fee, which is now $3.25 per person.

Other activities at Applewood Farm include a ride on a replica of an 1865 steam locomotive that takes visitors through the farm to the areas where the Christmas trees are planted.

St. Clair said he also offers a hayride to the tree lots and sells fresh homemade wreaths, but focuses his business on Christmas trees. A retired accountant, St. Clair and about six employees maintain the farm's 25,000 trees.

Although the trees require a lot of time and care, about six to eight hours a day, St. Clair said he plans to continue the business.

"I like Christmas trees," St. Clair said. "I plan to keep selling Christmas trees as long as I can."

Harford farms

Tree farms include: Applewood Farm, 4435 Prospect Road, Whiteford; Deer Creek Valley Tree Farm, 3744 Ady Road, Street; Environmental Evergreens, 3631 Berkley Road, Darlington; Evergreen Farm, 4219 Webster Road, Havre de Grace; Hickory Hill Tree Farm, 3123 Copenhaver Road, Street; Jarrettsville Nurseries, 4302 St. Clair Bridge Road, Jarrettsville; Rock Hollow Tree Farm, 4105 Federal Hill Road, Jarrettsville; Walnut Grove Tree Farm, 2931 Charles St., Fallston.

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