by Sally Colby
As summer winds down, some farm operators look forward to the last pumpkin leaving the farm. But if you’ve ever thought about growing Christmas trees as an additional farm enterprise or starting a Christmas tree enterprise from scratch, the ideal time to get serious about it is now.
First, think about what kind of enterprise you hope to start. If you’re a “people person” and enjoy interacting with the public, or if your farm currently offers agritainment, a choose-and-cut operation might be just right for you. If you prefer to just grow trees and sell them, consider a wholesale operation.
The next consideration is the site – where the trees will be planted. Will you buy or lease property, or set aside part of your farm’s current acreage for Christmas tree production? Dr. Burt Cregg with Michigan State University has some tips about what to watch for when selecting a site.
“In terms of microclimate, watch for frost pockets,” said Cregg. “Some species break bud early and are susceptible to late frost. If there’s an area on your farm that sits low and where air tends to drain and form a frost pocket, that is something to watch for certain species.”
Cregg added that conifers grow best with full sun exposure, so avoid areas that are heavily shaded. He said the most important factor for site selection is soil condition. Most species grown for Christmas trees are fairly sensitive to drainage and soil pH. Areas on the farm that have standing water at any time of year are unsuitable for growing Christmas trees.
“Firs in particular do not like wet feet, so if you have areas that tend to hold water, they won’t be well-suited for those areas,” said Cregg. “Most conifers like acidic pH; around 6.0 is ideal for most.” Cregg noted that pH can be lowered with ammonium-based fertilizers or sulfur, but a better approach is to take soil samples and select species that are best suited for the existing soil pH.
As you consider the site, think about market factors. If you’re adding a choose-and-cut enterprise to an existing you-pick operation, many of your current customers may be potential customers. If you’re starting from scratch, is your farm close to a population center, or are people likely to be traveling past your farm? A wholesale operation has somewhat different requirements, including good roads and easy access for large equipment and semis.
Growers should select species based on two factors: The preferences of potential customers in the region, and which species are best adapted to the climate and conditions on your farm. If you aren’t familiar with regional preferences, part of your homework will include taking notes at as many Christmas tree farms you have time to visit during the upcoming season. Find out what grows well in the area, what people like and what they don’t like. People select fresh trees based on color, overall shape and form, branch structure, scent and needle retention. Once you learn which species are suited for your growing area, become familiar with the characteristics of each species so that you can grow trees that customers want.
Once you have determined which species to grow, figure out how you’ll prepare the site, what size seedlings to start with and how you’ll plant the trees. Consider the scale of the operation – will the operation have pedestrian walkways, roadways for small vehicles or tractor-trailer access?
If the growing area requires clearing prior to planting, consider how existing vegetation and stumps will be removed. “If you’re starting with pasture or grass, you can probably burn down existing grass,” said Cregg. “The key is getting land clear enough for operations and get in to do what you need to do. If you have weed problems before you start, they aren’t going to go away. It’s important to get weeds under control or you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.” Preparation for tree planting is similar to other agricultural enterprises, and might include cover crops to enhance the soil profile. If you’ve designated and cleared an area for Christmas tree production, late summer or early fall is the ideal time to sow a cover crop.
Decide what size seedlings you want to plant in spring. Most growers plant seedlings obtained from reputable nurseries that can supply the appropriate young trees for the region. “In the nursery, they plant seeds at fairly high density,” said Cregg. “At the end of the season, they’ll have a one-year-old seedling, called a one to two. Growers lift the seedlings and plant them in transplant beds, which gives the plant more space, and seedlings can be sorted and culled. These are grown for one or two more years. A one to two seedling is a one-year-old bare root seedling that has been transplanted into a transplant bed and grown for two more years, so it’s a three-year old plant.”
Growers use several methods to plant young trees, including by hand or with the help of a tractor-drawn planter. Some experienced growers use GPS systems to align trees perfectly in the field, which can be helpful for spray programs. Trees should be spaced according to recommendations by the supplier. Exceptions include tabletop trees, which can be grown more closely because they are harvested at less than four foot, and trees that will be grown to larger than average height, which require more space.
Like other crops, Christmas trees are prone to pests and disease. Mammals such as voles, mice and deer can be a serious problem in some areas. Insects don’t usually kill trees but can cause aesthetic damage, so it’s important to know which pests are most prevalent in your area and be prepared to scout for and deal with them.
Some species have specific disease issues, but the single biggest problem for growers is Phytophthora root rot, which kills the tree. “It’s a water mold,” said Cregg. “The fungus produces a spore that swims. If you have standing water at any point, the spore swims and attacks the roots. The tree looks fine one day and the next day it turns brown, then soon it’s dead.”
If you’re new to growing, learn as much as possible about appropriate IPM (integrated pest management) for the species on your farm. Integrated Pest Management includes regular scouting, biocontrol measures and identifying the economic threshold of an insect or disease – at what point is it worth treating trees?
Be prepared to learn the proper shaping for the species you’re growing. Most customers still prefer a dense, full tree, which requires shearing and pruning. Some species, such as Noble fir, require more top work to train the leaders, which is labor-intensive. Allow for labor at the appropriate shearing time for each species.
Although harvest won’t be a consideration for several years, it isn’t too early to think about how to handle that aspect of the enterprise. In a choose-and-cut system, the customer is doing the work, but you must provide a safe, easy way for the customer to access the field, cut the tree and bring the tree in from the field. In a wholesale operation, the goal is to minimize tree handling. If you’re cutting trees and holding them for transfer to a lot, think about the post harvest period – do you have a way to keep trees fresh as possible? Harvested trees should be kept cool and shaded in natural shade, under shade cloth or in a building with trunks in water whenever possible.
Successful Christmas tree growers find that state, regional and national Christmas tree organizations provide current industry information as well as networking opportunities. As you visit Christmas tree farms this season, take plenty of notes and decide which practices will work or not work on your farm. Visit during busy times and see how different farms handle traffic and customers. Determine what you can do to make your operation a unique experience that customers will look forward to every Christmas season.
Christmas tree farming 101
by Sally Colby