Farm Progress

Slideshow: By selling both cut Christmas trees and trees for landscaping, the Smith family keeps operation going year-round.

Gail C. Keck, freelance writer

November 3, 2017

7 Slides

When the Smith family plants a crop, they’re looking 10 to 15 years into the future to predict market demand. But demand can change unpredictably, as it did when the housing market took a downturn in 2008.

Surviving such challenges takes a willingness to adapt and some creative thinking. “We have to evolve with the times now,” says Chris Smith of Smith Evergreen Nursery in Carroll County, Iowa. He and his brother, Mike, help manage the family business with their dad, Mike Smith Sr., and their uncle, Jim Smith. Jim’s son, Ian, who works as a firefighter, also helps part time.

The business was founded in the late 1940s by R.P. Smith, father of Mike Sr. and Jim. R.P. got his start in the tree business by hauling evergreen trees into Canton from Canada to sell as Christmas trees. By the early 1950s, he was growing his own trees, and the family eventually expanded the business to include sales of live trees for landscaping, says Jim. “He was quite the entrepreneur at the time.”

Early on, cattle played an important part in the production process as tree-trimmers, Jim recalls. The cattle would rub on balsam fir trees with their horns, damaging the lower branches. Those wounds stimulated the trees to set more buds on the upper branches, creating fuller trees that were ideal as Christmas trees. The lower branches would be cut away and the full tops would be used as Christmas trees, Jim explains.

Of course, today, the Smith family relies on hand-trimming to shape trees, but the perfect tree is a matter of taste. For instance, they’ve had customers tell them they prefer their trees to the fuller trees typically produced in North Carolina. If Christmas trees are too full, it’s difficult to find places to hang ornaments, explains Chris. “Sometimes our heavy clay soils might grow an inferior tree undecorated, but decorated, it’s a showpiece.”

While the Smith family started in the tree business with cut Christmas trees, they expanded production and marketing to fill demand for live trees for use in landscaping. “It cost the same to grow an 8-foot cut tree as it does to grow an 8-foot dug tree,” Chris says. “But the dug tree sells for $120, while the cut tree goes for $30 wholesale.”

Tree transplants more profitable
There is more investment in equipment and overhead to handle dug-up trees, but they’ve found dug trees to be a more profitable use of land and capital for the farm, Chris says. Currently, about 75% of the trees they sell are live and about 25% are sold wholesale as cut trees.

Smith Evergreen grows trees on several sites within a 30-mile radius of the company headquarters in Magnolia, Ohio. They raise more than 20 different evergreen species, and work with a variety of soils, drainage conditions and terrain, matching each site with the species most suited to the growing conditions. Although the soils vary somewhat, the clay-based soils of the area are an advantage for producing trees for transplanting, says Mike Jr.

The clay soil improves survival rates because it holds together well around the tree roots when the trees are dug, protecting the roots from breakage. Many evergreen species grow well in looser, sandy soils, but if they are transplanted, the sandy soil falls away, breaking the fragile roots, he explains.

The housing boom of the 1990s through the early 2000s was especially good for the live tree business, Jim recalls. However, when the housing market dropped in 2007, their standing orders trailed off.

Today they’re selling fewer trees, but they’ve found new business by offering transplanting services. For instance, they dig and transplant trees for privacy screens and windbreaks, or replace overgrown or declining landscape trees.

Since they’ve been growing trees for so long, they can provide trees of nearly any size up to 25 feet. In addition to balled and burlapped trees and field-potted trees, they continue to sell fresh-cut Christmas trees to retailers across Ohio and several other states.

The internet has also changed how the tree farm markets trees. They make their wholesale prices available online, so customers can easily compare prices, Jim explains. As a result, more customers come to them directly to buy landscape trees rather than buying through a retailer or re-wholesaler who marks up the prices. However, Mike Jr. notes, customers sometimes don’t realize that trees are dug to order and show up at the farm unannounced with a trailer expecting to load up trees.

Ohio’s weather conditions usually allow the Smiths to dig trees for transplanting 9 to 10 months out of the year, while the cut tree business is concentrated in November. They sell all their trees wholesale and this year they expect to cut 9,000 to 10,000 trees in just a few weeks to supply Christmas tree retailers, Mike Jr. explains. “Everybody wants them by the weekend after Thanksgiving.”

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