On an early October day, the temperature in rural Harford County hit 85 degrees. Jack-o’-lanterns congregated on front stoops in Bel Air and Jarrettsville like a demonic choir. Sunflowers stood 5-feet tall in the fields. Each blossom was the size of a human head and appeared to be staring straight at you.
Christmas couldn’t have seemed further away as Gary Thomas, 68, picked up his pruning shears and began to shape 3,000 spruce and fir trees.
Winterfarm Tree Farm in Street, located on 60 acres of land that has been in Thomas’ family since the 19th century, was scheduled to open its choose-and-cut Christmas tree business just six weeks later, on Nov. 21.
If this holiday season is similar to 2020′s, every one of Thomas’ available Fraser, Canaan, Korean and Concolor firs will have been snapped up before Dec. 1 by customers willing to pay between $65 and $150 per tree to celebrate a cherished American holiday tradition.
“Last year, people weren’t traveling as much because of the pandemic,” said Thomas, who runs Winterfarm with his wife Maryanne.
“They were looking for fun activities they could do outdoors with their families. We had a bonfire, hot chocolate and cupcakes, a shop where people could decorate their own wreaths. People would stay for hours. We sold out of our trees in seven days.”
Winterfarm is one of about a half-dozen cut-your-own Christmas tree farms in Harford County gearing up to provide firs and blue spruce during a year that industry experts predict an unusually heavy demand for live trees.
That demand, coupled with a dearth of available evergreens, both real and artificial, could drive up prices by as much as 25%.
“The supply in Maryland is going to be tight this year, just like it was last year,” said Joncie Underwood, treasurer of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, and co-owner of Pine Valley Christmas Trees in Cecil County. She urged consumers to buy their trees early this year, ideally over Thanksgiving weekend.
“It may be harder to get a tree from your favorite farm,” she said, “but there will still be trees available. We have never in this country run out of Christmas trees.”
Underwood expects demand to be as high as it was in 2020, when international travel over the winter holidays ground to a halt and families stayed closer to home.
“Research shows that most of the people who purchased a real tree for the first time last year are planning to do it again this year,” Underwood said.
The American Christmas Tree Association estimates that 75% of U.S. households (about 94 million), will display at least one tree this year. Typically, 85% of those trees are artificial.
In the past two years, however, the pandemic has disrupted manufacturing and transportation worldwide, causing a scarcity of consumer goods from new cars to refrigerators and now, artificial Christmas trees.
“There’s a shortage of workers,” Underwood said. “All those container ships are sitting off the California coast. Nothing is moving.”
Making matters worse, Mother Nature dealt a whammy to the live Christmas tree industry over the summer.
Christmas trees grow best in areas with cool summers. In July, a heat wave that sent temperatures soaring to a blistering 116 degrees decimated nurseries in the Pacific Northwest, the region of the U.S. supplying most of the pre-cut trees sold at big-box retailers and from corner lots.
“Some Oregon farmers reporting losing up to 90% of their crop this summer,” the American Christmas Tree Association wrote in a news release dated Sept. 15.
Maryland’s approximately 75 evergreen farms grow their own trees and weren’t affected by either the heat wave or supply chain problems. Still, each farm has a finite number of trees to sell. Moreover, Thomas, of the Winterfarm Tree Farm, estimated that the number of farms in the state has declined by about 50% in the past 15 years.
“During the recession of 2008, prices got so low that people were selling Fraser firs [a premium tree known for its beautiful shape] for $14 just to survive,” Thomas said. “A lot of farms got out of the business. In Harford County, I’m one of the last survivors.
“The nature of the industry is that a Christmas tree farm is a long-term investment. If you plant a tree today, it will be seven to 10 years before it’s big enough to sell.”
Maryland’s climate isn’t ideal for growing evergreens, and in particular, it’s not good for growing Fraser firs, the nation’s top-selling live tree species. The weather is too warm, and the heavy clay soil stays too wet. Nonetheless, people do it anyway.
Underwood said that nearly every county in Maryland has at least one evergreen nursery, though the bulk of the state’s industry is centered in hilly Frederick and Carroll counties, where the topography favors better drainage. Harford County has at least eight farms, though Underwood said there may be additional small farms of which she is unaware.
“It’s not easy to grow Christmas trees,” she said.
“A lot of people think you can just stick a seedling in the ground and harvest it in seven years. That is not the case. You have to test the soil and prepare the ground and plant seedlings, and constantly keep watch for insects and disease. You have to spray the trees and shape them. You have to work year-round to grow trees you can sell.”
Luckily, the billions of cicadas that descended on Maryland in May and that laid eggs on seemingly any vertical structure taller than a popsicle stick left evergreens alone.
“They stick to deciduous trees,” Thomas said, referring to trees that shed leaves.
Ditto for the invasive, sap-sucking spotted lanternfly. The deadly pest first found in Maryland in 2018 damages fruit trees and some hardwood species such as black walnut and oak but not firs or spruces. Hungry deer, meanwhile, can reduce a three-foot Fraser fir sapling to a pencil-sized stem overnight.
“I consider myself a great grower,” Thomas said, “but there’s always a new pest or fungus.”
The hard work of growing Christmas trees becomes exponentially more difficult for farmers such as Bob Chance of Environmental Evergreens Tree Farm in Darlington, who sells what he describes as “organic” Christmas trees from his 10-acre farm.
A former high school teacher of earth and environmental sciences, Chance, 75, stopped using chemicals on his farm after developing prostate cancer in 1984. Further motivation was supplied by the Labrador retrievers and rare turtle species he raises.
“As a cancer survivor, I just don’t want to be around any more poison than I have to,” he said.
Environmental Evergreens specializes in trees that are dug out of the ground by hand and balled in burlap so they can be planted outdoors once the holiday season has passed. Prices range from $20 for a 2-foot-tall choose-and-cut tree to $240 for a 12-foot balled tree.
“For the past 30 years, I have had a traditional cluster of customers,” Chance said.
“Eventually, they run out of room in their own yards, but they have this ethic in mind that they don’t want to kill something. So we try to figure out some place where they can plant the tree and it will grow.”
In addition to Winterfarm and Environmental Evergreens, Harford County’s tree farms include Deer Creek Valley Tree Farm in Street; Hale Tree Farm in White Hall; Hickory Hill Tree Farm in Street; Jarrettsville Nurseries in Street; Jones Family Farm in Edgewood and Sunny Hill Farm in Whiteford. For hours and location, go to marylandchristmastrees.org/harford-county and pickyourownchristmastree.org
Looking for a tip-top tree? Here are some tips to keep in mind as provided by farmers Joncie Underwood, Gary Thomas and Bob Chance:
Selecting your tree
Best species for needle retention: Fraser firs. “You’ll get three months of pungent fragrance out of a Fraser,” Chance said.
Best species if your cat climbs Christmas trees: Blue spruce. Their bottle-shaped branches have prickly needles that felines avoid.
Best species to transplant into your backyard: Norway spruce or a variety of pine that adapt well to this climate. Avoid Fraser firs unless you can plant it on the side of a hill and in the shade. These firs are picky about their soil and resent transplanting.
Overall appearance: Make sure the trunk is straight and has no obvious bare spots. Pull gently on the foliage. If green needles come off in your hand, move onto a different tree. (Don’t worry about brown needles.) Now look at the shape. Do you prefer a full tree, or one with wide spaces between the branches to show off your ornaments?
If you cut your own tree
Bring a tape measure. “An 8-foot tall tree looks a lot shorter when it’s in a field surrounded by other trees,” Underwood said. “Most people buy trees that are too tall for their houses.”
Bring help: Cutting a tree down isn’t physically demanding. The saw blades are sharp and the trunks are soft. But it’s a two-adult job. One person holds the top of the tree while the other person saws.
Cut it: Saw the trunk as close to the ground as possible. Hold the tree upright until the trunk is fully sawed through, and then gently lower it to the ground to avoid splitting the trunk vertically.
In your home
Water it: You have four hours to get your newly cut tree into water before the trunk seals over and stops absorbing water. And once your new tree is in the stand, don’t let it dry out. “An eight-foot tree can easily drink a gallon and a half of water a day,” Thomas said.
Keep it cool: Positioning the tree away from heating vents, in a cooler room, and in front of a window facing north or east will keep it fresh longer.
Don’t use tree preservatives: “They don’t do any good and may even do some damage,” Thomas said.