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For Christmas tree farmers, a long wait for sales

Forestry and TimberLaws and Legislation

The moment Fred and Kimberly Clark waited for since planting firs, pines and other evergreens eight years ago finally arrived last weekend.

Their first Christmas tree sales.

All farming is delayed gratification, but the delay is particularly long for Christmas tree growers. The Clarks, who run two backyard farms in Calvert County, have done a lot of planting and shearing since 2005 in the hopes of an eventual payoff.

It's not as simple as it looked to Fred Clark years ago when he stopped by a Christmas tree farm and watched a farmer accept customers' cash.

"I thought, 'I can sit on the back of my truck and collect money, too,'" joked Clark, 49, whose day job is at a ductwork contractor. "It turned out to be a little more work than that."

The number of Christmas tree farms has fallen in recent years and could continue to shrink. Many of Maryland's growers are in their 60s and 70s, and not all have a new generation lined up to step in.

But some newcomers buy farms from retiring growers. And entirely new operations — like the Clarks' Evergreen Knoll Christmas Tree Farm in Huntingtown — occasionally do start up.

Maryland once had many more such farms because federal tax laws made them a favorable investment for lawyers and other professionals, said Cindy Stacy, co-owner of Pinetum Christmas Trees in Garrett County. A major tax break disappeared in 1986. The side-investment farms went away.

Now, "we've got the die-hard people that are in it for the long run," Stacy said.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture — the most up-to-date information on farms — counted about 230 operations growing Christmas trees in Maryland, 34 fewer than five years before. Total trees harvested in Maryland in 2007: nearly 78,000.

The biggest Christmas tree operation in Maryland is Jarrettsville Nurseries, which has at least 150,000 trees in various stages of growth at its two Harford County farms. Boyd Saulsbury and cousin Gary Thomas are the second generation of the family to run it.

The men and Saulsbury's wife, Dana, sell trees directly to customers every day during the season, a stretch of weeks so busy that they temporarily bulk up to 40 or 45 employees. Families come to the farm to sit around a campfire, take a hay ride, cut down the tree they want — "we supply saws," Saulsbury said — and see Santa and Mrs. Claus on weekends. The family's living-room-size trees range from $42 to $63.

They sell wholesale to garden centers, fire departments and other purveyors, too. They're even raising trees in North Carolina these days.

But Saulsbury said they face the same roll-of-the-dice odds of any farming operation, multiplied by the extended growing period. Drought kills trees. So does too much rain. And disease. And deer.

He said you'll end up harvesting two-thirds of what you plant — if you're lucky. Lousy weather on weekends leading up to Christmas, meanwhile, is bad for sales.

"You do it for the love, not for the money," Saulsbury said. "You're better off taking your money and going to Las Vegas."

It's not usually quite that bad, but the risk of a truly awful year always hovers. Sometimes it hits.

Last year superstorm Sandy walloped Pinetum near Deep Creek Lake, where Cindy Stacy and her husband, Marshall, have farmed for 43 years. They lost thousands of trees to high winds and heavy snow — trees that became 200 tractor-trailer loads of mulch.

It was all the more heartbreaking for the Stacys because the storm felled varieties grown much longer than usual — nearly half a century, in one case — for hotels and other customers who want trees 20, 30 and 40 feet tall. The biggest, most beautiful specimens sell for $6,200 each.

"We only get one paycheck a year because we're tree farmers, so last year was sad," Cindy Stacy said. "We lost 70 percent of our income."

They didn't have insurance. Insure a Christmas tree at the start of its life, and you'll pay many times its retail value by the time you're ready to cut, Marshall Stacy said.

But the Stacys, now semi-retired and collecting Social Security, got through that rough year. This season was much better. And Cindy Stacy, who's active in the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, is hearing good reports from other farmers, too.

"People seem to be doing very well," she said.

When the Stacys bought their 370-acre Swanton property in 1970, it already was a tree farm — albeit a bankrupt one. The Clarks, by contrast, started from scratch on grassy back yards.

All told, they have about a half-acre of trees growing behind their previous home, which they now rent out. About the same number of trees grow behind their current home, a nearby property with more room for expansion because it's just under 10 acres.

Every year the Clarks plant 200 more trees. They have somewhere between 800 and 1,000 growing now, which accounts for heavy losses in the early years.

Fred Clark came into the business with agriculture experience: He spent summers as a teenager working on his uncle's farm in upstate New York. But it was corn, soybeans, hay and cows, not trees. He and his wife have spent a lot of time getting up to speed.

They go to Maryland Christmas Tree Association meetings. They've visited other farms for ideas. They've learned from trial and error which species do well on their land, and that planting in the fall works better than in the spring.

Kimberly Clark, 42, a federal worker, said interacting with the customers appeals to her more than the actual farming part. But she can see her husband likes the labor.

"That was kind of his route of getting out and I guess de-stressing in a lot of ways," she said. "If he had his choice and you could make a living farming nowadays, that's probably what he would do."

The Clarks have 50 or so trees that are at least seven feet tall — living-room suitable — at their original farm off Sun Park Lane in Huntingtown. Kimberly Clark suspects they won't sell them all this month, though. She wasn't certain they'd be ready to open and thus got a late start on marketing.

But that's where it helps to be a farmer of Christmas trees, rather than something with a shorter life cycle. Whatever the Clarks don't sell before Christmas will keep growing. They can get out the shears and try again next year.

"That'll be fine," Fred Clark said. "They'll be a little bit taller."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Finding a tree

Looking to make a trip to a farm for your Christmas tree? The state-run Maryland's Best site, marylandsbest.net, lists 48 of the operations selling their trees this year. Some farms are strictly wholesalers, so look at the details before you go.

Farms on the list include some offering "agritourism" activities in addition to trees, from campfires to hay rides to visits from Santa.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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