Christmas tree industry lauds profits from 2020
Virginia’s Christmas tree growers are basking in the glow of a record demand in 2020 for their product in a year that has been dominated by illness, death and gloom.
Growers said the COVID-19 pandemic brought them added customers as people sought to bring something positive into their lives.
The beginning of the season got off to an unexpected start when people showed up at Christmas tree farms before their usual or scheduled opening dates.
“It started really fast and it ended fast for lots of folks,” John Carroll of Claybrooke Christmas Tree Farm in Louisa County said. “A lot of people sold out of their inventory, especially the choose-and-cut folks.”
“It was a sellers’ market,” Greg Miller of Willow Springs in Montgomery County said. “There was a shortage in the pipeline for trees.”
Most of the tree sellers, especially choose-and-cut, have traditionally opened on Thanksgiving weekend.
This year, many farms and retail lots opened early and some said they had people coming to their farms prior to that wanting trees.
“All of us were surprised,” Carroll said.
As fall set in, they had wondered if the pandemic would keep people away.
Miller said people wanted to get out in the open where they could feel safe and have a sense of normalcy for a little while.
Robert O’Keefe at Rifton Tree Farm in Pilot, Va., said his retail sales were up a record 38 percent. He was among those who opened the weekend before Thanksgiving.
He said this was true for the wholesale side of his business as well.
He ended up without any trees to sell wholesale while still having the experience of people calling from Texas to Connecticut looking for trees.
Carroll said most tree growers made changes in how they did business to help keep customers and farm personnel safe.
His family closed his farm to choose and cut patrons.
Instead, they took appointment requests so customers could come to the farm and pick up their pre-cut trees.
They were able to pay a cashier at a drive-by window.
While this slowed operations own a bit, he said visitors where understanding.
He added he was satisfied doing business this way but is concerned about the future and how business will be done.
“We can do anything short-term,” he said. “I don’t know about long-term.”
The 2020 season gave the Carrolls a wholesale opportunity to sell large trees.
These trees which have exceeded the size needed in homes were supplied to churches and towns who chose to put their trees outside because of the pandemic restrictions, he said.
Willow Springs, a diversified tree farm, also had demands for big trees for similar purposes.
Miller said he had to buy some big trees to be able to supply his customers.
He noted that it took a lot of self-control this year not to harvest trees that will be ready to market in coming years.
He found a way to use some bigger trees to meet the demand for trees.
Following a procedure known as high topping, he cut the tops out of the trees to make nice sized household trees.
Greenery from the lower portions went to making wreaths and garlands.
The growers expect the demand for trees to exceed supply for several more years.
O’Keefe said this may be followed by a glut of trees in the industry.
Miller, who has been growing trees for 50 years, discussed some of factors that have led to the current situation in the industry.
Growers agreed that it began with the 2008 Recession.
The economic downturn cut down on the number of real Christmas trees being purchased at that time.
Growers responded by planting fewer trees meaning there are now not as many trees to meet demand.
It can take a minimum of seven to ten years for a tree to be marketable, he said.
Miller noted tree farmers buy seedlings that are from three to five years old to plant their crop.
This means the seedling growers cut back as well.
As tree growers look to future Christmas seasons, they are wondering if those who returned to real Christmas trees on their farms or discovered them for the first time will be returning.