Retailers stable, despite decline in tree sales

Staff Reporter

CENTREVILLE, Md. (June 3, 2014) — It’s often people from the suburbs who venture into Blue Heron Tree Farm in the month before Christmas each year in search of the right Douglas fir or blue spruce.
Families from Baltimore, families from the Washington, D.C., area and Virginia — places relatively far from the rural expanse of this small Eastern Shore community.
But when they arrive, there are hay rides and an outdoor train for the children.
The owner’s grandson dresses up as Santa Claus and hides among the pines. The owner, 81-year-old Ed Caporin, grows out his white beard and dons a red shirt and suspenders as he bores holes into trunks of the trees customers have chosen and cut from his 15-acre farm that sells about 1,200 Christmas trees a year.
“I think what draws people here is more of the experience,” said Harriet Caporin, Ed’s wife.
It’s likely that ambiance the Caporins and similar Christmas tree growers offer that keeps their business steady. It’s not necessarily steady elsewhere.
The number of Christmas trees cut from farms in Maryland dropped by nearly 30 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to recent USDA data. In 2007, 168 Maryland farms cut nearly 78,000 Christmas trees, and 144 farms cut about 56,000 in 2012.
Delaware growers, who cut nearly 11,000 Christmas trees in 2007, experienced a similar decrease. Nationally, tree growers produced essentially the same number of trees in 2012 as they did in 2007 – about 17 million.
But retail tree growers who spoke with The Delmarva Farmer last week said they haven’t noticed a drop in sales.
The state may have lost some wholesale tree growers to more agriculturally hospitable states such as North Carolina, said Wade Butler, a Christmas tree grower in Germantown, Md., and interim vice president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association.
Indeed, the total number of farms producing Christmas trees in Maryland fell from 229 in 2007 to 173 in 2012. The number of farms in North Carolina jumped from 1,251 in 2007 to 1,370 in 2012 that produced a whopping 4.3 million Christmas trees, by far the largest producer on the East Coast.
“Being a retailer is good, but being a wholesaler is tougher,” he said. “Maryland’s not the friendliest state in the world to do business in.”
Butler, who said he buys some trees from wholesalers for his retail operation, said he noticed the price dropped last year, suggesting a glut in the market.
Regardless, modest retail sellers said they remain optimistic about sales. Darrell Dockery, a partner at Friendship Trees in southern Anne Arundel County, Md., said his farm has been growing. Sales were down to about 500 trees a year when he took over 38 acres from an elderly farmer in 2008.
Now they’re north of 1,000. He credits local media reports over the last several years promoting the tradition and nostalgia of natural trees.
“We got bombarded with people,” he said. “The media has a lot to do with our sales.”
As Maryland becomes increasingly urbanized, families enjoy connecting with the rural character of a tree farm, Butler said. TnT Farms north of Elkton, Md., has kept families enticed by keeping prices between $15 and $45 — well below the $45 to $85 charged by bigger farms, said Cyndy Timko, co-owner of the farm.
She said sales at her farm rose from 2002 when they first sold trees until the beginning of the recession in about 2008.
“I think industry-wide, everybody saw a difference between 2008 and 2012,” Timko said.
She said their farm sells so-called “three-sided” trees that have been crowded while growing for $15 or $20 — perfect for a family looking to put a tree in the corner of a room. They call those trees “Charlie Browns.”
“We’ve had more people asking for Charlie Browns,” she said.
But the two largest problems facing Christmas tree growers remain the sales of artificial trees and invasive deer capable of ruining an entire crop of newly planted trees when they eat buds off the limbs during winter, Butler said.
Regardless, the artificial trees “are somewhat of a tough battle,” he said.
His association promotes natural Christmas trees over artificial trees, which he said have been wrongly labeled environmentally preferable. They don’t biodegrade, and they often made with polluting or harmful chemicals.
Back at Blue Heron Tree Farm, Ed Caporin said he finds himself making less of an effort to promote the farm.
At one point, the yearly crowd grew too large for the limitations of the farm and hurt the quietude some of his customers enjoyed, he said. But business is modest and reliable from one year to the next, he said.
Even customers who left to try out artificial trees returned several years later to cut a real one down.
“I bet you the day we close the doors, we’ll still have people driving up here for a tree,” Caporin said.