O Christmas tree: work in summer sun, winter snow

Published 4:09 pm Friday, December 26, 2008

POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. (AP) — Christmas is over, but for Christmas tree farmers the work is just beginning so next year’s boughs can be even brighter.

Tree farms across the South — whose operators feared the economic downturn would trim their tree sales — are already beginning to lay the groundwork for the next holiday season.

“The work starts now,” said Perry DeWeese, who began the tedious task of cutting down stumps and planting new seedlings Friday at his Sleepy Hollow Christmas Tree Farm, a 7-acre plot in west Georgia. “Essentially, the day after Christmas is the day we start all over again.”

DeWeese’s regimen is a tried-and-true schedule that’s mirrored around the region, designed to take advantage of the South’s balmier winters and spring rains.

He expects to have scores of trees planted by February so they’ll be ready to soak in the winter and spring rains. He’ll lime the land in February, fertilize it in April, and mow it through the summer.

In July, he’ll begin the first of two rounds of pruning wayward branches from the tree, and in the fall he’ll prepare his choose-and-cut farm for customers by culling some of the unworthy trees.

“We never get a break. Farming is like housework: It’s never done,” said Judy Brewer, who runs Brewer’s Christmas Tree Farm with her husband in Midway, Ga. “There’s something all the time.”

The Christmas tree industry was bracing for a topsy-turvy season amid the economic downturn. Americans spent some $1.3 billion on real trees and another $1.2 billion on artificial trees in 2007, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group.

There was no telling yet how the economic downturn has affected the industry, but early reports from scattered growers were encouraging. Some said the downturn didn’t clip their sales, and other reported only marginal declines.

“Most of us have been doing this for years and we know Christmas trees are recession proof,” said DeWeese, whose sales were about average this year. “Even if you can’t get many presents, everyone wants a beautiful Christmas tree.”

Paul Beavers said business at his Trafford, Ala. farm took a minor hit — sales were down less than 1 percent — but he didn’t sound too disappointed.

“I’m well pleased with the way things turned out this year,” said Beavers.

“Over the 14 years I’ve sold trees, I’ve had people who didn’t care, who said Christmas just came one time a year, and they were going to celebrate,” he said. “They might cut back on gifts, but not on trees.”

John Gregory, who runs Unicorn Hill Farm in Gainesville, Fla., said his business fared a bit better than usual. His farm sold about 400 trees and was forced to close a week earlier than normal — a full 11 days before Christmas.

But Gregory and other growers have little time to take stock in this year’s sales if they want next year’s business to rival their latest haul.

“The hard work starts now. We have to get to it,” said Gregory, a retired professor at the University of Florida who got into the business about 30 years ago.

Little did he know it was pretty much a full-time job.

“The work never really stops,” he said, before tracking back a bit. “Well, only right around Christmas.”


On the Net:

National Christmas Tree Association: http://www.christmastree.org/