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Local Christmas trees offer freshest product
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Enjoy the fresh smell of a live Christmas tree longer by shopping at one of the state's remaining choose-and-cut farms.
Steve Dicke, Christmas tree specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said between 1985 and 1987, the state had about 450 choose-and-cut farms. The 100 remaining farms represent some of the best quality trees available this holiday season. Locally grown trees offer fresher products than consumers will find on most retail lots.
"Many farms closed as a result of the labor involved in maintaining quality trees that are better than consumers can find at retail lots," Dicke said. "Research has suggested that trees selected at a choose-and-cut farm will be twice as moist as a tree standing on a retail lot."
Dicke said the benefits of an increased moisture content include longevity and safety. Choose-and-cut trees do not shed as many needles and are not fire hazards. The benefits of locally grown trees and the current shortage of farms in some areas make Christmas trees a reasonable alternative crop for some landowners.
"The up-front costs are usually around $2,000 per acre and about $500 annually for management needs. Labor costs are very high, but in four to five years, growers can start expecting a payoff of about $15,000 or more per acre by selling 600-700 trees each Christmas," Dicke said. "Even though that sounds like a good return on your investment, we are losing tree farms every year, so obviously there is a catch. That catch is the labor costs."
Dicke said it may be seven or eight years before growers reach the break-even point. He encouraged new growers to start small, possibly by planting a half acre, and work their way up.
"To survive in the Christmas tree business, growers have to produce top quality products, be market savvy and enjoy working with the public. Many times, the farms have to have additional attractions to bring in the customers," Dicke said. "Mississippi growers are improving at controlling diseases and producing a better quality product."
Dicke said Mississippi growers had wonderful weather conditions again in 2003 and are producing an excellent product for the upcoming holidays. Trees have grown rapidly with adequate rainfall in recent summers, unlike the droughty conditions in 1998 through 2000. In general, he said trees are resilient and can cope with slightly wet or slightly dry seasons.
Louisiana grower Clarke Gernon said trees on his farm could have missed many of last summer's rains.
"Conifers do not like to stand in water. They want to be in ground that drains quickly. Saturated soils will slow down their growth and in extreme cases, trees will die," Gernon said.
Gernon's 45-acre farm has about a dozen varieties and only one is native to Louisiana. He has worked hard to develop special machinery to improve management methods. He said the list of talents to be a successful tree farmer is pretty long: growers have to be able to build and work on equipment, to communicate with the media and the public, and be a forester.
"Marketing is essential to survival, and it has become extremely complex. Promotion may include direct mail, the Internet, local media and advertising; they are all critical to marketing a choose-and-cut farm," Gernon said.