Farms sell Christmas trees, holiday tradition


Issue Date: December 16, 2015
By Steve Adler
Three-year-old Chenchen Wang of Davis enjoys a holiday outing at Jacob Mini Farm, a Christmas tree farm in Davis that has been in operation for more than half a century.
Photo/Steve Adler
When a Christmas tree is harvested at Jacob Mini Farm in Davis, purchasers are asked to leave several lower branches below the cut. Eventually, the farm’s owners say, these branches will turn upward and form new Christmas trees, without the need to plant replacement seedlings.
Photo/Steve Adler

The holiday season is something special for Emily Jacob Amy of Davis, whose family has been operating a choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm for nearly 60 years.

"It's more than just selecting a tree to the families that come to our farm," she said. "Our customer is coming for a tradition they have been following. They like the low-key atmosphere, away from the hustle and bustle of the shopping center, enjoying a walk in the fresh air and the smell of the fresh-cut tree."

Amy, who operates Jacob Mini Farm with her brother, Charles Jacob, and husband, Fred Mitchell, said the 6-acre farm grows several varieties of trees: Douglas fir, incense cedar, Scotch pine and giant Sequoia.

"All of our trees are $38, no matter what the size or species. This encourages the larger trees to be cut," she said. "If too many small trees are cut, it reduces available trees for the next couple of years."

Prices are the same as a year ago, Amy said, noting that she tries to hold the price steady as much as possible.

"Costs for insurance and electricity to run the pump are the biggest expenses, along with property taxes," she said. "As the expenses go up, so must the price of the trees."

The continuing drought has caused a few setbacks at the farm, Amy said, noting that it cut back 50 percent on irrigation this year, following a 40 percent cut in 2014.

"This year we lost more trees than ever before. This year is going to be a tough year; we will likely have more people walk away not finding what they are looking for," she said.

The executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association, Sam Minturn, said the drought has caused the loss of some young trees at farms around the state, but there hasn't been a significant impact on more mature trees.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, harvest-height trees have well-established root systems, so they're not as susceptible to seasonal weather patterns as younger trees.

"It does not require thousands of gallons of water to grow a Christmas tree, as has recently been quoted," said Rick Dungey of the NCTA. "Only about 4 percent of all Christmas tree farms in the U.S. use irrigation. You do not need to consider the impact of a regional drought in deciding to display a fresh, farm-grown Christmas tree."

There are other benefits of real trees, according to Ginger Armstrong, CCTA president.

"Unlike artificial Christmas trees, real trees are renewable and recyclable," Armstrong said. "However, many people still perceive cutting trees down as bad for the environment, and that's not the case."

During the four to six years or more it takes a Christmas tree to mature, the trees provide a number of benefits to the environment, she said, noting that Christmas trees produce oxygen as they grow and serve as filtering devices for dust and smog. As trees develop, needles are shed naturally and the surrounding soil is enhanced. The trees also become home to birds and small animals, and serve as winter habitats for deer and other wildlife.

"Christmas trees are like other crops. They are meant to be harvested, just like corn or vegetables," Armstrong said. "Since trees are a crop, they are managed on a sustainable basis."

In times past, Christmas trees were often cut down in forests and not replaced with seedlings. But today, nearly all Christmas trees, 98 percent, are grown on farms. According to the CCTA, for every Christmas tree harvested, two or three more are planted.

At Jacob Mini Farm, Amy said no trees are killed. Customers who come to the farm are asked to leave a whorl of four or five good-sized branches on the stump below the cut. These branches will turn up naturally, become vertical and form a new tree, she said.

"We do not shear our trees; it is like you would find a tree growing in the forest. Our customers enjoy walking through the 'forest' of trees to find the one that is calling their name," she said.

"Real trees have a pleasant holiday smell, especially after trimming the tree," Amy added. "It is actually the sap that provides the scent. As you decorate, the needles bend or break, exposing the sap to the air, and that is what you smell."

As do many small farmers, Amy and her husband have other jobs to support them. Amy said it is a good year on the farm when the sale of trees pays operating expenses and yearly property taxes.

"I have a full-time job, so this is usually a weekend project. The small farm does not support the household," she said.

Nationally, more than 33 million fresh-cut trees are purchased, with a total price tag of $1.2 billion.

In California, despite the drought and competition both from artificial trees and from fresh-cut trees shipped in from the Northwest, the state's 300-plus Christmas tree farms are enjoying a brisk business, Minturn said.

For more information about California Christmas tree farms, visit www.cachristmas.com.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

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