Nov. 30—Christmas season is already in full swing — especially at Maine tree farms.
Most Christmas tree farms have only been open for one weekend, but already the demand for trees has been record-breaking across the state. Customers should expect increased prices, smaller trees and farms closing their doors earlier than they have in years past.
Tom Hale, owner of Hale Tree Farms in Westmanland, has been growing and selling choose-and-cut Christmas trees for more than four decades. He said that 2020 was a record year for Hale Tree Farms, and this year is on track to be the same.
"It's actually kind of scary because I don't know if I'll have enough trees to meet the demand," Hale said.
The supply of holiday trees will be tight in 2021, according to The Maine Christmas Tree Association. During the Great Recession in 2008 many farms went out of business and others cut back on planting, not expecting today's demand for real Christmas trees as increasingly realistic artificial trees had been long edging out the real deal. Currently, artificial trees make up between 75 and 80 percent of the Christmas tree market.
Now, more than a decade later — about the time it takes for a sapling to grow into a tree fit for a festive living room — the supply is modest, but real Christmas trees are making a comeback, especially at choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms, where the experience is just as important as the tree itself.
"I had no idea that I would be selling this many live Christmas trees so I didn't plant enough trees for the demand," said Dave Karas, owner of Echo Hill Nursery in Waldoboro.
The increased demand has led to a particular crunch in the supply of tall Christmas trees. While farmers can charge more for tall trees, the turnaround for smaller trees is quicker, Lowell Freiman, owner of Davis Stream Tree Farm in Washington, said. Plus, more shoppers are looking for smaller trees that are less labor intensive to maintain.
"I used to have a lot more 9-, 10-, 11-foot trees and at this point I have way less of them," Frieman said. "If someone calls on the phone I say, 'I'm sorry, I really can't help you,' whereas four years ago I would say, 'Oh sure, I have plenty.' Most smaller growers don't want to grow anything more than 6 or 8 feet because of the economy and the time commitment to getting bigger trees."
Freiman sees a number of other factors that are causing the increased pressure on Maine Christmas tree farms. For starters, the ongoing pandemic has families still looking for outdoor activities to safely enjoy.
Then there's the fact that there aren't as many Christmas tree farms as there once were.
"As years have gone by a lot of the old timers have either stopped or didn't have family members to pass it on to," Freiman said.
Wholesale buyers have snatched up much of the supply, too. They started reserving Christmas trees as early as June or July, according to Adam Dyar, operations manager at McClure's Tree Nursery in Kingfield.
"We are getting calls for wholesale trees for 2022 already," said Duane LaCasce, owner of Finestkind Tree Farms in Dover Foxcroft.
The lower supply and increased demand has led some Christmas tree farms to increase their prices. For some farms, though, the increased price point of Christmas trees is less about demand than the increased price of supplies and labor.
"The costs of fertilizer and seedlings have certainly risen so if costs do not rise this year they will soon," Dyar said. "I feel like trees need to stay within the $40 [to] 60 range or some families will be priced out of having one or be incentivized to entertain the thought of an artificial tree being a more long-term cost effective option."
Customers should also be prepared to pay more for wreaths. Karas had to raise the price of his wreaths "30 to 40 percent" because the process of making a wreath requires specific skills and can be labor intensive.
To prevent the increased demand from depleting future supply, some tree farms are considering shuttering early.
Though the market has experienced fluctuations since 1975 when Karas' family has been in the Christmas tree market, he expects demand for real Christmas trees will continue to go up over the next 10 years, particularly at choose-and-cut operations.
"People are more willing to visit farms," Karas said. "I think if people continue to look at it more as an experience than a product, I expect that there will be a continuing trend of people cutting Christmas trees at farms."
The question then is whether or not there will be enough Christmas tree farms to meet that demand.
"The places [that were open] when I got started, I think there's only one or two of them left," Freiman said. "People have aged out of it. I'm 72 and I'm not getting any younger."