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christmas tree farming viable?

Leah Sattler


Joined: Jun 26, 2008
Posts: 2603
what does it take to grow christmas trees? how many years before you see a return from  trees that have reached an stage they can be cut? what is the actual profit potential?


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Pat Black


Joined: Dec 20, 2009
Posts: 123
Location: Northern New Mexico, USA
http://smallfarms.wsu.edu/crops/christmastrees/index.html
                                


Joined: Dec 20, 2009
Posts: 148
Like anything else, if you have a lot of xmas trees, you will have to wholesale them. That means a bigger volume and a lower price-per-each. I'd say start small and do a "pick-your-own" type thing. That way you get the retail price for the tree the customer selects, everybody's happy.
tel jetson
steward

Joined: May 17, 2007
Posts: 3109
Location: woodland, washington
    
  58
I haven't looked at WSU's resources, but I can talk a little bit about my own experience.  the farm I work for started planting Christmas trees about twelve years ago.  there was a six-acre field that had really marginal soil that wasn't supporting food crops at all.  rather than undertake the long process of improving the soil for food production, the decision was made to plant Christmas trees.  a mixture of Douglas-fir, Grand Fir, and Noble Fir were planted the first year.  Fraser Fir, Nordmann Fir, and Shasta Fir were added in subsequent years.

the first Douglas-firs were ready first in four to five years.  then Grands at five to six years.  then Nobles at six to seven years.  Frasers, Nordmanns, and Shastas take roughly the same time as Nobles.  the time to harvest depends a lot on growing conditions and the size of the tree at planting.  smaller trees at planting tended to survive better than larger trees, but more frequently succumbed to weedwacking because they're harder to see.  older trees at planting, assuming they survive the first summer, will generally be ready for harvest sooner, but they're a little bit more work to plant.

selling the trees to a U-cut crowd is a matter of good signage and developing loyal customers.  I believe this was the farm's eighth or ninth year selling trees, and we sold over 300 trees for the first time.  we probably had 700 trees for sale.  to some degree, a tree that doesn't sell can just be sold next year, but at some point they just get too big and we've had to cut them down.  this is most often the case with Doug-firs and Grands.  it's difficult to do, because the oldest trees are the trees with the most labor invested in them.  having a nice bonfire made of culled trees makes it easier emotionally.

the most labor intensive part of the process for us is mowing and weedwacking.  at the peak of the growing season, that's a weekly chore that takes a lot of time.  mulching with cardboard makes the weedwacking substantially easier, but that's one more chore.  the most skill intensive part is shearing the trees.  my boss tried to do it himself for years.  he did a good job, but it took him an entire summer of a couple hours every morning before our real work of growing food.  now, he hires a crew of ringers who get the job done in two days.  it's expensive, but they are efficient and do a great job.

the price of our trees ranges from a few Charlie Brown Christmas trees that we mark as free to a few real beauties for $95.  more generally, Dougs are $35; Grands $45; Nobles, Frasers, Nordmanns, and Shastas $65.  those prices are pretty cheap relative to other tree farms in the area.  we also sell fresh cider from our own press, fresh donuts from our own machine, homemade cookies, and a few jarred items like local honey.

I'm not willing to go through all the accounting here, but it's not obviously very lucrative or obviously losing us a lot of money.  I'm not privy to the books, but my feeling is that after developing a customer base for several years and learning a bit more about what works and doesn't, we're in better shape now, but nobody's getting rich.

some problems we've run into include spacing and disease.  it is tempting to plant trees too close together to maximize production, but that leads to trouble.  trees crowd, and mowers don't fit as years go by.  we had some sort of root rot infect a block of Fraser Firs.  they were in a low spot that stayed damp longer than the rest of the field.  after the first tree started declining, the rest of the block wasn't far behind.  there have been some other minor disease and pest issues, but nothing serious.

if I were to start a Christmas tree farm from scratch, I think I would pay more attention to preparing the field ahead of time.  establishing a suitable ground cover that wouldn't need frequent mowing would take a considerable investment of time and labor on the front end, but would save much more in the long run.

overall, it's a decent supplementary enterprise.  doesn't really appeal to my permacultural sensibilities in the incarnation I'm involved with, but I guess that's not the only consideration.


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Travis Philp
volunteer

Joined: Dec 28, 2009
Posts: 951
Location: ZONE 5a Lindsay Ontario Canada
    
    8
The whole idea of growing ornamentals doesn't sit well with me. Especially if they take 5-12 years to mature and you can't really grow anything underneath them in the meantime.

That being said; I saw a tv news item about a christmas tree operation that does home delivery of potted christmas trees that can be replanted and resold the next year. Of course they charge extra for the pickup, which could make it worthwhile and solving the landfill problem. But then you have the fossil fuel you would have to burn for after-xmas-pickup. Unless of course you're running a sustainable alternative fuel in your vehicle which could be an even greater marketing angle.


http://www.greenshireecofarms.com
Zone 5a in Central Ontario, Canada
Joel Hollingsworth
volunteer

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
I wonder if some of the larger trees might be donated to a nonprofit? Some churches have use for very large trees.

Also, it's surprising to hear there aren't compatible intercrops. An annual that dies long before Christmas and can handle low pH and some shade shouldn't be too tall an order, right?


"the qualities of these bacteria, like the heat of the sun, electricity, or the qualities of metals, are part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men.  They are manifestations of the laws of nature, free to all men and reserved exclusively to none." SCOTUS, Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kale Inoculant Co.
                    


Joined: Oct 23, 2011
Posts: 0
just curious how much ground is needed to ready 700 trees.
tel jetson
steward

Joined: May 17, 2007
Posts: 3109
Location: woodland, washington
    
  58
stully wrote:
just curious how much ground is needed to ready 700 trees.

we plant trees on six foot spacings in the rows, with seven feet between rows.  that's a little tight, but a reasonable example.  that's 42 square feet per tree or 29,400 square feet for 700, which is just over two-thirds of an acre.  that doesn't account for access roads/paths or any other space you might need.
Joel Hollingsworth
volunteer

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
Would alpine strawberries be a good companion plant? Maybe along with clover.

You-pick fees for alpine strawberries might have to be admission-based, rather than by weight. 
tel jetson
steward

Joined: May 17, 2007
Posts: 3109
Location: woodland, washington
    
  58
Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
Would alpine strawberries be a good companion plant? Maybe along with clover.


I would marry alpine strawberries if I could (preceded by musk strawberries, were I polyamorous), but I'm skeptical about pairing them with Christmas trees.  I think they would play just fine with the trees, but the folks who are in there trampling all over the place at shearing and harvest times would wreak havoc.  clover...  maybe other folks have different experiences, but I haven't had good luck with clover in combination with strawberries.  clovers tend to be rather more vigorous with the stolons than the fruitier strawberries, which quickly defeats (through weeding) my prime motivation for growing alpines: laziness.  I do, however, hope somebody tries strawberries under Christmas trees (and immediately reports back here).
Travis Philp
volunteer

Joined: Dec 28, 2009
Posts: 951
Location: ZONE 5a Lindsay Ontario Canada
    
    8
Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
Also, it's surprising to hear there aren't compatible intercrops. An annual that dies long before Christmas and can handle low pH and some shade shouldn't be too tall an order, right?


Ah, I wasn't thinking about intercrops but simply trying to plant underneath the trees. I was visualizing my grandfathers christmas tree farm which had just enough space to walk and harvest in, with no room for anything else. The obvious escaped me about spacing them out to put something else in the mix
Joel Hollingsworth
volunteer

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
Even if the mature ones are rubbing elbows, something can be done near the younger ones, and at the corners (assuming rectangular rows: a hexagonal lattice has much smaller corners).

Also, ramps might do OK under the trees. They tolerate shade, and apparently do well in pH 4.9 soil ( http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/ncnu02/v5-449.html ).
                              


Joined: Oct 03, 2010
Posts: 32
Location: Zone 6a/b - London Ontario
Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
You-pick fees for alpine strawberries might have to be admission-based, rather than by weight. 


My mom used to take us to "pick your own" berry places and used to joke with the entrance staff that they should weigh us on the way in & out so she could pay the difference. 


~ I don't talk to people with closed minds; They tend to harbor brain fungus. ~
tel jetson
steward

Joined: May 17, 2007
Posts: 3109
Location: woodland, washington
    
  58
here's a goofy video about coppicing Christmas trees.
                    


Joined: Oct 23, 2011
Posts: 0
that aint goofy, its brilliant! I was just gonna post it.  more brilliant than we know. i already forwarded it on to the DOD foresters I know who are working to control slides on reaches above salmon habitat. why> cause conventional wisdom says let the trees grow. but they get too big or topheavy in snow and blowdown in storms, and lead to more slides. solution: contract someone to keep them low, sell the trim and call it a day. living roots/soil stabilizing,  low profiles that survive winds, jobs created. multiple functions, one element.

not quite a christmas tree topic, but since the video was already posted I thought I would "branch out"



Joel Hollingsworth
volunteer

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
Coppicing Christmas trees makes all kinds of sense. It's not as though the customer wants the roots, after all...and I wonder if one could even get extra publicity, or even a price premium, from the fact that the tree survives the cutting.
tel jetson
steward

Joined: May 17, 2007
Posts: 3109
Location: woodland, washington
    
  58
"Let the Circle be Unbroken" re-imagined as an ode to coppicing Christmas trees is very obviously goofy.  or you're going to have to give me another definition of "goofy."

only things missing from the salmon picture with coppice is shade from tall trees for water temp and downed logs in the river.  sounds pretty good to me, though.
tel jetson
steward

Joined: May 17, 2007
Posts: 3109
Location: woodland, washington
    
  58
Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
Even if the mature ones are rubbing elbows, something can be done near the younger ones, and at the corners (assuming rectangular rows: a hexagonal lattice has much smaller corners).

Also, ramps might do OK under the trees. They tolerate shade, and apparently do well in pH 4.9 soil ( http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/ncnu02/v5-449.html ).


word I've heard from ramp growers is that conifers have too many surface roots, so the ramps don't do well.  sounds reasonable to me.
Joel Hollingsworth
volunteer

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
tel jetson wrote:
only things missing from the salmon picture with coppice is shade from tall trees for water temp and downed logs in the river.  sounds pretty good to me, though.


I could see some benefit in taller trees, managed a little differently to produce timber and to maintain a fairly dense shade right near the water.

It also looked as though significant wood remained after coppicing, which might have made the trees healthier if cut. This wouldn't be the same as whole logs, but might serve some of the same purposes.
S. G. Botsford


Joined: Oct 23, 2011
Posts: 62
    
    1
Time span -- 7-12 years depending on climate.

Wholesale price is about 40% of retail.

If you are doing this as an adjunct to another operaiton, having a Cut your own tree operation is the way to do.  You may have a selection of pre-cut trees in addition for the less adventurous, and for people who cannot come out on the weekend.

Make it an event.  If you are planning a CYO, don't plant the trees in rows, but plant random.  I'm starting this now.  I have 5 miles of trail folded into 16 acres, and my goal is to plant a tree every 15 feet.

Adjunct activities:

1.  A grove with a fire,  and some shelter from the wind.  One family member tends the fire, sells hot chocolate, hot apple cider, coffee marshmallows, oat meal cookies, and tells stories.

2.  A sliding hill.

3.  A skating pond.

4.  Sleigh rides, if you have a horse.  (Indeed, if it runs the Christmas tree trails, people can hitch a ride, drop off where they see the sort of thing they like, and pick up the next sleigh.)

***

The same set of trails for the Christmas trees can be groomed for cross country ski trails.  The fire and food stand could be used more weeks a year this way.  Open every weekend, and possibly nights when the moon is right.

Almost all trees are sold in 4 weeks.  Unless you have a lighted farm (Do NOT try cutting trees by moonlight....) you are open only Saturday and Sunday.    400 trees at $50 bucks each is 20,000.  Adjunct activities can double this.  But evwen this means 50 people a day coming, on average.

In practice 2/3 will come on Saturday.  So 65 are on Saturday.  2/3 of them will arrive between 11 and 2.  So at peak times you  have someone arriving every 5 minutes.

Most people will need assistance to fasten the tree to the top of their car.

If the average stay is 3 hours (Adjunct items) then you have to be prepared to park 40 cars.  At least 3 per day will come in with inadequate tires, or will slide off your snowplowed trails, and need pulling out with the tractor.

Some people will want help with the tree. 

Staffing:

Best bet is to hire local high school kids, or neighbors who want to pick up a bit of pocket money.  It's not a long enough gig to attract a steady person.  This means you have to train a new crew every year.  So define the jobs really really well.  If you hire kids:

1.  Try to get kids from grade 10,11, and 12. This will give you some continuity from year to year.

2.  Hire about 20% more than you think you will need.  At this time of year kids go skiing, holiday, etc, so you want to have a pool to draw on.

3.  Have multiple shifts.  Kids do well for 3-4 hours, then they start to slack. 

4.  Feed them.  A teenager is always hungry.

5.  Have a training afternoon the weekend before the first sale date.  Walk them through the whole process.  Tell them:
a.  Bring extra clothing.  Mitts, toque. 
b.  Footwear is critical.

Get feedback from them to find out what interests them. 

6.  Mark the help.  Red elf hats with white fur trim?  Green bib apron with your logo?
7.  Try to find someone who knows first aid to be on site.
8.  You or a family member should handle the money.  Run the food stand with tickets.

So let's assume that you have one person tending the fire and running the food stand, one person making the rounds with the sleigh, one person at the gate directing traffic, and helping people tie trees to their cars, one person collecting money.  One person watching the skating pond and hill for problems.  And you move around trouble shooting. You've got 5 people, two are family members.  You may want a couple extra for the busy time. 

Here to get high school students for this sort of gig, I pay $10/hour -- about 50 c more than the local gas station pays for pump jockeys.

So to run from 10 to 5 is 7 hours.  5 hired hands will cost $350/day.  Extras for the busy shift -- call it 400/day.  4 weekends will cost 3200 bucks.

You can get things going a bit earlier, by opening it for cross country skiing, sledding skating as soon as there is snow, and the ice is solid.  (Flooding a diked area with just 8 inches of water will freeze a LOT faster, and be safer.)  If the fire spot is adjacent to the pond, parents can watch their kids, and kids can warm up by the fire, and buy more goodies.

Power:

Power allows lights and christmas music.

If you run a lighted yard for evening pre-cut tree sales, you will need a generator.  Locate the generator a full 100 foot extension cord away from where people are.  Dig a hole in the ground 3-4 feet deep and a foot wide (auger) and run an exhaust hose from the generator into the hole.  This cuts generator noise amazingly.  Build  a wall of haybales around the generator.  This cuts the noise even more.

Honda generators are *really* quiet.
S. G. Botsford


Joined: Oct 23, 2011
Posts: 62
    
    1
More comments:

On the growing aspect:  If you are going to copice the trees, you need more room.  From what I've read you can grow at tree to 9 feet or so, take the top, cut all but two branches of  the lower part, and raise two smaller christmas trees from the lower branches.  You will usually have to pound in stakes to train the branches upright.  This makes the weed control tougher.

You can only copice one or twice.  Then you have to get rid of the tree.  Roots are horrendous.  If you aren't strict about rows, plant a new seedling 6 inches from the trunk of the old tree. and recut the stump to shed water toward the seedling.

If you want faster turnover, start your seedlings in 1 gallon nursery pots for 2-3 years.  You can get them about 18" high this way.

Weed control:

If you are in a high moisture location (30" precip/year) you may be able to grow moss instead of grass.  Drop the soil pH by adding sulfur -- about a pound per square yard, wait 3 months, test.  Repeat until pH is below 5.  The moss will come in naturally, although you can speed this up by collecting moss from sunny locations, throwing it in a cement mixer with 5 gallons of water, and spraying the water on the land.

You can test this by doing patches with 1,2,5,10 lbs of S per square yard, and watching it.  It needs a mat of vegetation on it for the S to be eaten by the bacteria that produce sulfuric acid.  Works best if you can till it in some.

Roundup doesn't work on moss.  This allows you a way to do some control while making the conversion.

Leave is aisles in grass however.  Moss doesn't tolerate traffic well.  One of those hand crank fertilizer spreaders works for spreading the sulfur.  Most conifers prefer an acid soil too.
Tom Kozak


Joined: Dec 09, 2012
Posts: 45
Location: Canada
Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
My mom used to take us to "pick your own" berry places and used to joke with the entrance staff that they should weigh us on the way in & out so she could pay the difference. 


my parents AND grandparents suggested the same thing. although they would have had to weigh grandpa too!

seriously, thanks this is a lot of great info! Would it be possible to graze sheep, geese, turkeys or something in between the trees to cut down on weeding? (and make a little more money)., especially in those first few years before the trees turn a profit?
Tyrr Vangeel


Joined: Dec 17, 2012
Posts: 20
Tom Kozak wrote:
Joel Hollingsworth wrote:
seriously, thanks this is a lot of great info! Would it be possible to graze sheep, geese, turkeys or something in between the trees to cut down on weeding? (and make a little more money)., especially in those first few years before the trees turn a profit?


I have no experience with chrismas trees yet, but Sheep might take a bite from the trees aswell?
Grace Madison


Joined: Nov 24, 2013
Posts: 2
Location: United States
I think it's viable but only for the season. What else for the whole year. You can't spend your whole year from that seasonal sale of Christmas tree.


Good Day
josh brill


Joined: Sep 06, 2010
Posts: 86
    
    1
The other option is making wreaths. We have a patch of old christmas trees that are to large to sell but we can harvest greens from them to make 5+ wreaths. Smaller trees probably make around 3-4 10 inch wreaths. We sell them along with our other things at market for 35. Its more work but you get more money per tree to make up for it.

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R Scott


Joined: Apr 13, 2012
Posts: 2487
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
    
  21
Grace Madison wrote:I think it's viable but only for the season. What else for the whole year. You can't spend your whole year from that seasonal sale of Christmas tree.


If you are successful, it is--but is risky. There are lots of businesses that get their entire cashflow in a single season--fireworks dealers, conventional farmers--shoot, most retailers (and their suppliers) make all their profit from Christmas.

If you can add work and cashflow to other seasons it is extremely helpful, but not necessary. I think a U-pick, pumpkin patch, Christmas tree farm is a good combination to get year-round traffic.


http://www.treebytheseafarms.com/
"You must be the change you want to see in the world." "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." --Mahatma Gandhi
"Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words." --Francis of Assisi. "Family farms work when the whole family works the farm." -- Adam Klaus
Walter Jeffries


Joined: Nov 21, 2010
Posts: 907
    
  18
On a cautionary note I see a lot of abandoned Christmas tree plantations. It has become very much a commodity market and it takes a long time to get a return. I think a lot of people start out with the goal of doing it but then the years of trimming, pruning, mowing and such become too much and life happens.
josh brill


Joined: Sep 06, 2010
Posts: 86
    
    1
I agree with Walter. The reason we do wreaths is because our farm had a bunch of trees planted before we got there. The farmer started selling them but realized that in our area the market was saturated and if you went anywhere else it was hard to compete with the established places and still make any money.

4 weeks and $20,000 sounds nice but clearly thats a rosey view. and the 3200 it takes to run it for that period doesn't include planting costs, property taxes and since your bringing a whole bunch of people on the farm liability insurance is pretty much a must. Especially if your creating the ice skating and sleigh ride experiences. So the 3200 starts to creep up and up.

I think the question shouldn't be "is christmas tree farming viable" but "why do I want to grow christmas trees" If you can find a market, create a business plan that seems legit and then come up with an implementation plan then you can probably be successful.
 
 
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