Weather affects tree growers’ prospects


Issue Date: December 17, 2014
By Ching Lee
Jeri Lynn Seifert, who operates Silveyville Christmas Tree Farm in Dixon, puts netting on a tree purchased by a customer. Choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms such as Silveyville do the majority of their business during the two weeks after Thanksgiving.
Photo/Ching Lee
Adilene Munguia, helps customers of Silveyville Christmas Tree Farm with their wreath purchases.
Photos/Ching Lee
Silveyville Christmas Tree Farmer Jeri Lynn Seifert talks to young visitors during a tour of the farm.
Photos/Ching Lee

California Christmas tree growers say they have not been as hard hit by the drought as some other farmers with permanent crops—and worry more about how stormy weather could slow foot traffic to their farms.

"I haven't heard anybody who was affected, where they lost trees because of lack of water," said Sam Minturn, executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association and a grower in Merced County.

About half the state's Christmas tree farms do not use irrigation on their crop, he said, but those farms are usually in regions with more moisture, such as along the coast and where there are natural forests. Farms that irrigate, such as those farther south, have been able to stretch their water supply to keep trees growing, he added.

Because the Golden State "can't come close" to producing enough trees to meet demand, Minturn said, nearly all choose-and-cut operations here also sell fresh, precut trees from Oregon and Washington, particularly popular noble firs, which don't grow well in much of the state. But he noted consumers may have to pay more this year for those out-of-state trees because there is no longer a glut coming from the Northwest.

Jeri Lynn Seifert, who operates Silveyville Christmas Tree Farm in Dixon, said while she has had adequate water supply from the Solano Irrigation District, the drought has weakened her trees by making them more susceptible to insect infestations and diseases.

She noted that one variety in particular, the Spanish Scotch pine, suffered more mite damage due to stress from sun and heat. She plans to cut those trees in the spring and plant more resistant species and more Monterey pine, which is her top seller.

Because her farm offers educational tours, play areas and a slew of activities for kids and family, Seifert acknowledged that agritourism has become a large focus of her business.

"We really try to sell more of an experience than just getting a tree," she said. "People come and they spend two and three hours getting their tree and visiting with friends, doing their traditional visits."

For Ginger Armstrong, who runs Snowy Peaks Christmas Tree Farm in Placer County with her husband Jim, "weather is always a factor" in how well the farm does, she said, as the farm's location at 4,000 feet elevation in Foresthill is quite the trek for many of its urban customers. A few years ago, Snowy Peaks could not open because of snow.

"If it's stormy on weekends, there are folks who choose not to come and be out in it to cut a tree," she said.

The sluggish economy also has not been good for her business, she said, but she noted how last year's sales were better, and with current gas prices down, it may influence more people to make the trip to the farm.

"We're hoping we're starting an upward trend," she said.

Armstrong said the only noticeable effect of the drought is how it has slowed the growth rate of her trees, which receive no irrigation. But with nearly 40,000 Christmas trees on the farm and some 8,000 planted each year, she said there is plenty for customers to choose from.

Indian Rock Tree Farm in El Dorado County also does not use irrigation—and lost thousands of seedlings this year due to the drought—but farmer Larry Hyder said the rest of his crop "is unbelievably good." He also said he is not concerned about the losses because he's already replanted some of them and will plant more this spring, as he does every year.

The recent storms also did not seem to have affected the number of visitors to Indian Rock, he said. The closure of other, smaller Christmas tree farms in the region has helped to bring new customers to his farm, he said.

"We've been building the business for 50 years. We just have more customers than ever," he said.

Other farmers such as Joe McNally, who operates Mountain View Christmas Tree Farm in Butte County, said he's going to take a more cautious approach and not plant more trees this year. He said although he was "very minimally impacted by the drought," he's also "not comfortable" with current reservoir levels and the water table. He uses surface water and groundwater for irrigation and he said he's concerned about potential restrictions on both sources.

"Now it seems like people are getting excited and thinking that we're going to have a wet year. But I'm still not going to plant trees," he said. "It's a lot of money to put in trees and then have them die. I'll just sit on my tail and plant double the following year if we get a big wet year."

Nancy Roatcap, who operates Nancy's Ranch in Los Angeles County, noted her business has been flat the last few years. Sales dropped in 2008 during the recession and have since improved, she said, but they're still not back to 2007 levels.

"As far as I'm concerned, this year has been similar to last year," she said.

Roatcap's brother, Dan, runs a Christmas tree farm in Ventura County and relies on groundwater for irrigation. He has a much shorter crop this year because of an infestation of western gall rust, a disease that suppresses the trees' growth.

Like his sister, Dan Roatcap said the economy "changed the dynamic" of his business significantly. In 2007, he was selling more than 4,000 trees; today he's pushing 3,000. While he continues to plant the same number of trees every year, he's not growing larger, he said.

"You're always looking four, five years out to see what the potential is," he said. "You don't want to overplant and end up having a whole bunch of trees you have to cut out anyway."

Minturn said the Christmas tree checkoff program, which was included in the federal farm bill, could eventually help his sector grow market share, particularly in the face of competition from artificial trees. The national program collects 15 cents per tree from farms that sell 500 or more trees a year to fund research and promotion of real Christmas trees.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has delayed implementation of the program this year because a governing board has not been appointed, Minturn said.

The checkoff program got off to a controversial start in 2011 and was halted, he said, after some media outlets mischaracterized it as a "tax on Christmas trees" and public backlash followed.

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

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