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Jim Horst has diversified his Christmas tree operation with newer varieties and different planting times.

Susan Harlow

October 31, 2022

6 Slides

New England Christmas tree growers are facing another challenge these days: drought and volatile weather.

“If you don’t think climate change is an issue, your head’s in the sand,” says Jim Horst, executive director of the New Hampshire/Vermont Christmas Tree Association. Those two states sell $15 million to $20 million worth of trees each year. “The extremes are what can be a problem.”

Heavy rain is damaging on sites for Fraser fir, which Horst grows. Drought threatens transplants during the first year, and much of northern New England has been dry, including Horst’s farm.

“This year, we had virtually no rain from mid-June until early September, so the transplants struggled,” he says. “I used to say anything less than 5% loss I could live with. I suspect this year I’ve lost 25%.”

It’s the 50th year growing Christmas trees for Jim and his wife, Julie, on their Mt. Anthony Farm, located in Bennington, Vt. Jim is a third-generation grower. His grandfather bought the 300-acre farm after immigrating from Germany. Today, there are 50 to 60 acres of Christmas trees growing. The rest of the land is leased to a local dairy farmer for corn and hay.

To adapt to dry conditions, Horst is now planting one-third of his trees in autumn to take advantage of fall rains and help balance out his labor. A few growers are installing irrigation, he says, especially the first few vulnerable years of tree growth.

“Five years ago, I don’t believe anyone in Vermont and New Hampshire was irrigating,” he says.

Always adapting

The Horsts sell trees wholesale within a 100-mile radius. The farm is just 40 miles from Albany, N.Y. They start taking wholesale orders in July or even earlier. These days, sellers want to be set up no later than Thanksgiving.

The Horsts will sell about 1,500 trees as cut-your-own from their North Pownal location. When they started out, they sold trees wholesale and as cut-your-own. But with kids to raise, they put the cut-your-own business on hiatus in 2000, only to go back to it 10 years later after purchasing land in North Pownal.

The sandy loam there is ideal for raising Fraser firs, which are susceptible to soil-borne Phytophthora in heavy soil. Customers like Frasers because they hold on to their needles.

“But after several generations of trees, Phytophthora will kill the roots. But not until the tree is almost ready to be sold. And there’s no economically feasible way to control it,” Horst says.

Adapting species mix to changing conditions is essential, he says. In Bennington, 10 miles away and several hundred feet higher in elevation, he has dropped from 70% Fraser fir to about 20%. And while balsam fir can tolerate the heavier soil there, it is susceptible to tip damage from late spring frosts.

For the past 15 years, he has been trying out alternatives: a balsam-Korean fir cross and Canaan fir, which has a later bud break and can thrive in clay soils.

“We’ve learned to grow other varieties in those soils,” Horst says. “We keep an eye on market acceptance, but most important is to grow a decent tree.

“When I planted my first tree in 1972, I planted white spruce and Scotch pine, and later Douglas fir. There’s not a single one of those species on my farm today. Doug fir is outside its natural range and can’t grow well here.”

Tuning supply to demand

Inflation has hit the Christmas tree industry hard, and supplies will again be tight, Horst says.

Christmas tree growers cannot respond quickly to rising demand. It takes years for a tree to grow to saleable size.

“The difference between trees and hay, corn and other crops is we’re dealing with a nine-year cycle versus a one-year cycle,” Horst says. “When prices are low, there’s a tendency not to plant as much. Then we overplant. And it’s somewhat of a tough industry to get into. If they don’t have the land, it’s a challenge, because of the cost of land, and then it’s seven to nine years before you get paid. You can’t give up your day job.”

To help cover rising costs, Horst is increasing his prices 10%. He has a lot to cover. The price of one of his main herbicides has gone from $22 to $75 per gallon, and fertilizer has increased from $300 to $950 a ton. Diesel fuel has increased, too. Labor costs have risen by 10%.

Horst hires no full-time help. The need for workers is concentrated three times a year: at planting, shearing and at harvesting. A hired crew comes in for two weeks to do all the shearing while his son returns from whitewater guiding in Idaho to take charge of the annual harvest.

Having the ability to adapt to a changing environment is key for any Christmas tree grower who wants to make it, he says.

“And in 50 years we’ve shortened the rotation from 10 years to about eight through better seed sources, better genetics and better understanding of the relationship between soil and tree type,” Horst says. “So we’re learning.”

Harlow writes from Vermont.

About the Author(s)

Susan Harlow

Susan writes for American Agriculturist from Vermont.

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