Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Christmas tree farmers prepare for after-Thanksgiving rush

This is a good time of year for Christmas tree farmers like Chris Wilcox and not just because he’ll finally see a return on that Fraser fir seed planted 12 or so years ago.

“It’s a fun business,” says Wilcox, president of Appalachian Evergreens in Watauga County. “People coming to buy a Christmas tree, though you have the occasional sourpuss, are generally in a good mood. It’s enjoyable seeing people leave with a Christmas tree and be happy with it.”

Wilcox sells about 1,500 trees a year from a 7-acre choose and cut farm off Aho Road between Boone and Blowing Rock, and another 12,000 wholesale from 10 different tracts on 145 acres in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties. His grandfather, the late Charlie Wilcox, started the business in 1933. His son, Charles Kenneth Wilcox, who died Jan. 7 at age 85, also ran the business before passing it on. Chris Wilcox says he plans to pass the business on to his 33-year-old son, Charlie.

North Carolina farmers harvest approximately 4.3 million trees per year, a production level that puts the state second in the nation behind Oregon. More than one-fourth (26.7%) of all Christmas trees in homes come from North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association. At the same time, North Carolina has seen a Christmas tree shortage for the past several years. The cause of the shortage varies depending on who gets asked, says Wilcox.

“If you ask five different Christmas tree farmers that question, you’ll get six different answers,” he says.

Wilcox and Jennifer Greene, director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, agree that at least part of the problem has its roots in the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and did not end until June 2009.

Workers in the field harvesting North Carolina Christmas trees. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Christmas Tree Association.

“We planted too many trees and as the economy slowed down, people did not buy as many trees. A lot of people got out of it. People said, ‘Well, we’re not making much money,’” says Wilcox.

North Carolina Christmas tree farmers sold about $86 million worth of trees to wholesalers in 2017, the last year available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture census. New figures based on 2022 sales should be available early next year, Greene says. Farmers sold trees to wholesales for about $21 in 2017, and the figure this year is about $55, so those numbers could change significantly, she says.

Raising Christmas trees takes about 12 years from seed to harvest, so the industry has problems with quick adjustments, says Wilcox and Greene. “When the industry was ready to ramp up, the seedlings weren’t there and it elongated the shortage,” Wilcox says.

It takes between three and five years for a seed to become a seedling, says Greene.

“It’s not like other agricultural crops,” Greene says. “We don’t know what the economy is going to be like in 10 years so it’s really hard to plan.”

Appalachian Evergreens has been shipping trees – a tractor-trailer carries 450 trees each, he says – for weeks to nurseries and garden centers in eight states, some as far away as Missouri, Illinois, Connecticut and Ohio. Wilcox says he’d rather wait and cut the trees closer to Thanksgiving, but stores demand trees earlier and earlier to get their displays ready for customers.

“As soon as that turkey hits the trash can, people are running out the door to get their tree,” he says.

A dry spell – although the forecast calls for significant rain the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in the N.C. mountains – has helped the harvest by keeping the fields in good shape, Wilcox says. Tree farmers must remain vigilant year-round about insects and usually fertilize the trees in the spring. From late July through August, farmers will clip and shear the trees to give them that cone shape, he says.

“You want the tip ends to harden off,” he says. “You don’t want it to be sticky with a lot of sap.”

Wilcox says Christmas trees continue to be good business in North Carolina. Next year, Appalachian Evergreens will close its choose-and-cut operation off Aho Road to another farm off N.C. 194, northeast of Boone, where Wilcox has 35 acres and 40,000 trees in different stages of development.

“We doubled planting about seven years ago – 20,000 rather than 10,000,” Wilcox says. “For a seed to get to a seedling (about 1 inch tall), it takes about five years, and then they grow about a foot a year. That’s not an exact thing. It’s a natural process.”

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