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Summer rains helped, challenged Christmas trees

Most of Mississippi's Christmas trees made up this year for lost growth over the last couple of dry years, but the summer rains also increased the challenges from diseases.

Steve Dicke, forestry specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said 2001 was a much better year for growth, but growers had to control twig and shoot blight with fungicides, especially on Leyland cypress. In recent years, Leyland cypress trees were especially susceptible to cercospora, which is associated with drought stress.

“Christmas trees are not a get-rich-quick crop,” Dicke said. “It takes four to five years of hard work to get a crop ready to sell, and it takes time to start turning a profit.”

Valued statewide at $7 million last year, Dicke said the biggest problem facing Mississippi's Christmas tree industry is attracting new growers.

“Growers have to be both growers and then retailers. It's hard to have any other full-time job during the selling season,” Dicke said. “There is money to be made, but you have to be patient. Most growers know in about four years if they will be any good at it, but by then they're pretty committed.”

With about 150 growers in the state, many of whom are in their last years of production before retirement, the Louisiana-Mississippi Christmas Tree Association is working to make the business more profitable. One method is to grow trees useful for landscaping, so trees will still have value on Dec. 26.

Michael May of Chunky, Miss., has just taken over ownership of his parents' Christmas tree farm, Lazy Acres. In addition to selling insurance and working for a brokerage firm, May has been assisting his parents for years, but this is the first season to assume full responsibility.

“It has been a more expensive growing season. The rains caused problems, particularly for the Leyland cypress. We planted 900 trees and lost 300 in a low-lying area. We had to remove 60 or so trees with dead needles,” May said. “Still, most of the trees had a very good year of growth.

May has attended two Christmas tree grower conventions where he said there is a very positive outlook for the coming market season.

“There seems to be a strong desire for returning to family traditions, and we expect trees to play an important part in Christmas traditions this year,” he said.

Dicke estimated that half of Mississippi homes with Christmas trees use real, living trees. The average size of a Mississippi Christmas tree farm is 15 acres of production, selling 3 to 5 acres each year.

Linda Breazeale writes for MSU Ag Communications.

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