Christmas tree farms face balancing act


Issue Date: December 14, 2016
By Ching Lee
Indian Rock Tree Farm employee Cesar Mina, right, handles a tabletop Christmas tree as a customer reaches for another tree. The El Dorado County choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm is selling only trees it has precut at this time, in order to protect its inventory for future years.
Photo/Ching Lee
Larry Hyder stands on the hillside of his choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm in El Dorado County.
Photo/Ching Lee

It may seem counterintuitive for a choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm to wish for rain during its busiest time of year, but for Larry and Geri Hyder, it comes down to necessity.

With Christmas tree sales booming and crowds streaming to their Indian Rock Tree Farm in El Dorado County, the couple said they're running short on trees and some rain and snow might help to slow down foot traffic to their farm.

"That way we don't have to turn people away," Geri Hyder said.

Other California Christmas tree farmers cite similar concerns.

Though they're a choose-and-cut operation, the Hyders said they are not allowing their customers to do their own cutting at this time, in order to protect their inventory from being overharvested. They are selling only trees that they have precut.

"Some people want big trees and it takes a lot longer to grow the big trees," Larry Hyder said. "As they cut more and more, the sizes of trees available continue to diminish. When you hit a certain point, you've got to stop, because you don't want to cut them all."

He noted that years of drought have caused a lot of his tree plantings to be unsuccessful. Despite greater precipitation last year, he still lost a number of seedlings, but he noted he plans to plant 2,000 new trees this spring.

At Black Road Christmas Tree Farms in Santa Clara County, owner Robert Criswell said he was so overwhelmed by the "enormous crowds of people" flocking to his three farms that he had to close them last week. He noted that on Black Friday, the entrance road to the farms were so backed up that patrons waited nearly an hour for parking.

Because he serves much of the Silicon Valley community, Criswell said the farms' presence on several websites, social media and word of mouth have attracted some 10,000 people to his business, which has sold upwards of 2,000 trees each year. With more land going to residential housing, there are now fewer Christmas tree lots in the area, driving more people to choose-and-cut farms, he added.

"I think as a result of the computer industry, it has brought people in from all over the world, and they all want to have a farm experience," Criswell said.

He said he decided to close early because he was running low on larger trees. He's now trying to send customers up the hill to other farms that have not had as much business.

"I could keep selling, but then it cuts into next year because I won't have big-enough trees," he said.

When larger trees become scarce, he said, people tend to cut smaller trees too close to the ground to make up for the shorter height, effectively killing the tree. What keeps him in business, he said, is being able to regrow those trees four to five times.

Despite increased sales, Criswell said he's not planning on planting more trees this year, a decision he also made two years ago. With no access to irrigation, he noted many of the 3,000 trees he planted last year have died due to drought. A few years before that, he lost most of the 1,000 seedlings he planted. The drought has also brought more Douglas-fir twig weevil, which infects trees, causing them to deform or die.

Bob McBurney, owner of McBurney Tree Farm in Nevada County, said his business accelerated last year, when people heard he had tall trees—especially silvertips up to 16 feet. And then they cleaned him out during the first two weeks the farm was open, with sales jumping more than 30 percent.

This year, business is just as brisk, he said, except most of what's left are 4- and 5-foot trees. But he has to stay open for those customers who reserved trees in September.

"For people who want taller trees, that's kind of a necessity now," McBurney said. "If you come up here a week before Christmas, the pickings are pretty bad."

California choose-and-cut farms are not the only ones experiencing a lower supply of larger trees. Sam Minturn, executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association, said there is also a shortage of precut trees from Oregon and Washington, causing prices to spike at least 10 percent. He noted that 90 percent of the Christmas trees sold in California come from out of state, and many choose-and-cut farms also sell precuts from Oregon and Washington.

Minturn described the current shortage as part of a "rollercoaster" cycle the Christmas-tree business goes through: Farmers plant in response to an earlier shortage, oversupplying the market and reducing prices. But he said this time, it doesn't appear too many farmers are "rushing to fill the void" by planting more, "so the shortage may continue for a while."

"Part of it is economics," he said. "They may not have the land or the ability to plant more. It's hard to plan ahead 10 years—that's the problem."

Despite the higher prices, Bob Larsen of Larsen's Christmas Tree Farm in Sonoma County, a choose-and-cut operation that also sells precuts from Oregon and the Sierra, said so far he's sold more trees than he did last year.

"People haven't hesitated paying a little bit more," he said.

Minturn said his main concern is that prices of precuts will rise too much, steering customers toward buying artificial trees.

Because the drought has affected the growth of trees, Louise Jensen-Moran, who operates Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz County, said she's been selling precuts from Oregon the last three years in order to provide a greater selection of taller trees to customers. But a lack of inventory forced her to close early, which she's been doing for a number of years. She used to open until Christmas Eve, but this year, her last day was Sunday.

"We want to make sure we have an adequate supply of trees for the future," she said. "Luckily, I have been planting"—at least 3,000 trees a year—"to try to fill the holes and keep up."

Healthier rainfall these last two years has helped her trees rebound, she said, adding that she thinks "we're on our way to a better inventory."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.