Strong tree sales surprise growers

ADDISON COUNTY — Addison County residents who waited until the week before Christmas to buy a tree found it a hard task this year.
Most area vendors reached the end of their Christmas tree supply last weekend, and by Sunday many had closed their doors for the season.
“It was a very early, very fast season,” said Cheryl Werner, who with her family runs Werner Tree Farm in Middlebury.
Werner said the business, which sells both pre-cut and cut-your-own trees, saw an unexpected rush of customers earlier than usual in the season, and the family had to harvest all the trees they could at their farm in Lincoln.
By this weekend the farm had sold around 950 trees, which Werner said was average — they generally sell between 800 and 1,000 trees each year. But demand was still coming in, and there were no more trees to sell. Though they continued to sell wreaths, Werner said there were no trees to be found in the state.
“All our wholesaler friends were sold out, and friends who were retailers also didn’t have any extras,” said Werner.
Werner said that while all of this added up to a very good business year, the Christmas tree business is not all business — part of it is the tradition of returning year after year to pick out a tree. In that sense, said Werner, the season yielded some disappointments.
“We had a wonderful season — we sold lots of trees,” she said. “But we had loyal customers who couldn’t get trees.”
Werner said the family is already working on next year’s contingency plan in the case of high demand.
In Cornwall, Mickey Heinecken owns the much smaller Nutcracker Tree Farm, and he said he closed up cut-your-own tree sales this Sunday as well so as not to deplete next year’s stock. On Tuesday, he had one pre-cut tree remaining.
“It’s a relatively small farm,” he said, “So it’s not unusual for me to have to close down the cut-your-own part.”
But what was unusual, he said, was the volume of calls that have come in since he closed up shop.
“There’s a little bit of a sense of desperation out there for people trying to find a tree,” he said.
By all accounts, it’s difficult to know what to expect each year from the month-long season. Last year saw low demand due to the recession, so vendors like Agway were conservative when stocking for this year. The Middlebury business sold all 459 of this year’s stock of Christmas trees by Saturday, meaning that those customers who had waited until the last minute began calling around to tree farms.
“The tricky business part is that it’s this sort of balancing game,” said Werner. “You never know what’s going to happen out there on the market.”
Heinecken said that he had between 200 and 250 customers from all over the county visit his 8-acre tree farm this year, which was about average. As usual, about half bought pre-cut trees, and half were cut-your-own.
But he said that during his 30 years in the Christmas tree business, he’s seen a definite rise in the numbers of people who come looking for the cut-your-own experience — especially in the past couple of years.
Part of that rising demand, agreed Heinecken and Werner, is that there are fewer and fewer cut-your-own tree farms in Addison County. For a long time, there were enough tree farmers in the county to maintain a steady membership in the Addison County Christmas Tree Association. By 2006, the sale of land out of tree farms and many retiring tree farmers meant that the group’s membership fell to about 10, and the association disbanded.
“In Addison County, a lot of the choose-and-cut growers have retired and moved on,” said Werner.
Part of the rise in demand, said Jim Horst, the executive director of the New Hampshire-Vermont Christmas Tree Association, is that people don’t just want to head to the store to pick a tree out anymore. He’s seen the increased demand for cut-your-own across the two states in recent years.
“People are looking for an experience instead of just a product,” he said.
Until the association — which counts among its members 200 Vermont wholesalers, retailers and tree farms — meets to debrief in January, Horst won’t know how the season looked overall. But Horst is a wholesaler himself, and on Tuesday he said that most wholesalers he’s spoken with were sold out.
And more area consumers opted for the rugged choice this year — the Green Mountain National Forest Service offers permits for five dollars to anyone who wants to cut down a pine tree in the forest. Though the permit carries height limitations and restrictions on where people can cut — 25 feet away from any road, and not in a campground, wilderness or active timber sale area.
Ethan Ready, public affairs officer for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, said that on Tuesday, Vermont permit sales looked strong. While a couple more are likely to come in over the course of this week, he said the Middlebury office had sold 80 permits, compared to 51 last year. Overall, permits are up — last year, the four state offices sold 155 permits, and this year the number is up to 237.
“I have my own hunches that people are trying to find relatively inexpensive alternatives to a $30-plus tree,” said Ready.
But he said that the option appeals strongly to the experience-seekers.
“A lot of people, especially here in Vermont, enjoy getting out into the forest and searching for that perfect tree.”
Overall, Horst said that Christmas trees are a roughly $15 million industry at the wholesale level in Vermont. And while the one-month payoff period is rarely enough for a small retailer to live on, it provides a source of supplemental income for many.
And Heinecken said there’s more to the business than that — the real payoff comes when customers start arriving in late November and spend time searching for the perfect tree.
“It’s an enjoyable time because there is some labor that goes into the preparation, from fertilizing to keeping the grass cut to trimming,” he said. “You see the benefit of your work.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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