Fast forward to Christmas morning, your kids run down the stairs like a stampeding herd, ready to tear into their gifts, when to your horror they let out a bellowing scream. You scurry downstairs to find the Christmas tree is nothing more than a wooden skeleton, devoid of full figure, green needles, and ornaments.
If you’re thinking the culprit of this is a lack of watering by the family, you’re wrong. The true culprit is Mother Nature, and her lack of watering. And this is a scenario that could play itself out in households all across Northeast Ohio this Christmas season.
The drought takes hold
“We lost just about everything, most of the growers in Ohio lost between 80 to 100 percent of their seedlings, we put 7,500 seedlings in and we don’t have but 1,200 seedlings left,” said Amy Galehouse of Galehouse Tree Farms in Doylestown, Ohio.
According to Cleveland based WJW-TV Meteorologist Andre Bernier, “The drought began in the spring and lasted until June, it could have been a lot worse.” Historically speaking, the drought didn’t set any records, but it certainly wreaked havoc on the area Christmas tree farms.
“We had another bad drought in 1988, I didn’t have nearly as many trees planted back then, and this is by far the worst drought I’ve experienced in terms of how many trees I’ve lost,” said Dave Reese of Kaleidoscope Farms in Mt. Cory, Ohio. Reese estimates that he lost around 5,000 tree seedlings this year, mostly fir trees.
“From talking to people around the country, that were also experiencing a severe drought, we think it was more the heat that caused the tree loss, as opposed to the actual drought itself, but the combination of the two was pretty deadly,” Reese added.
In fact, this is the second straight year of hardship for local are farmers, due to weather. In 2011 the problem wasn’t too little water, it was the opposite. According the National Weather Service; Cleveland had its wettest April ever and the second wettest May ever. “Last year was very, very, wet! So, [nurseries] don’t have a lot of seedlings for us this year,” said Galehouse.
Small Farms, Big Worries
There is a real concern within the farming community that this drought could have drastic repercussions for some of the smaller Christmas tree farms within the area. The concern is due to the very small margin for error smaller farms have as compared to the larger farms throughout the area.
“Because we’re a large farm, we have a lot of trees, but if you take somebody with a small farm with maybe 20 acres, it will really affect them, because we tend to overplant because we have property to plant on, as a safety valve,” said Debbie Yeager of Storeyland Farms in Burghill, Ohio. Debbie’s husband Carl is President of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association.
Where a 100 acre farm similar to Storeyland can dedicate 10 or 20 acres of land per year for future seedlings to be planted, a small farm may only be able to dedicate 1 acre. Within the 1 acre maybe they plant two hundred trees and at 75 percent seedling loss that leaves only fifty trees to be sold for the 2019 harvest.
If the repercussions of this year’s drought are on the minds of large farms that have the time and space to make up for this year’s losses, imagine how the small farms feel? A sentiment echoed by Yeager, “We’ll probably be alright, but some of the smaller farms may be in trouble, down the road.”
An eye on Recovery
The impending deficit is on the minds of farmers as they plan future crops, according to Amy Galehouse, “The hole in our supply is going to be about ten years from now; the only way we can offset that is to order more seedlings.”
Farmers are moving forward with two general strategies. The first, in addition to their usual seedling order, add as many seedlings as needed in 2013 to neutralize the deficit. On the other hand some are choosing to spread the seedling order out over the 2013 to 2015 seasons. Be that as it may, there is a very strong risk in spreading the order out, because the trees may not reach the premium height of seven to eight feet.
Now, it is possible in 2019 farmers could order mature pre-cut trees from out of state nurseries and sell them on site, but it would likely be accompanied by a corresponding price hike for the consumers. Which would in all likelihood be a huge blow to their sales as consumers would seek out alternative farms with better prices.
Unfortunately, the caveat to this strategy is that you in a sense are doubling down on next season’s crop making it through the year unscathed. What happens if we experience another drought or rainy season? If the crop were to fail, it could be a death blow to your business and farm, putting your farm in an even deeper hole.
You only get three strikes in as Amy Galehouse explained, “If you have a year where you lose a lot of seedlings quite often you have to go back in the next year and plant something that is a little bit older, and it does cost more to do that.” But you can only go back and do that for three years where you replace what died, once less than 10 percent of the original crop remains you need to clear that field and start over.”
The Evergreen Stock Market
Christmas tree farming is a very fragile process, as there are so many outside factors that can negatively affect the success of a crop. “When your crop takes seven to ten years to reach market size, a lot of things can happen to it, whether its drought, flood, fire, deer, insect, mice, insects, or groundhog that could damage your crop,” said Dave Reese.
And if all of that isn’t enough for the farmers to deal with just like any other consumer good; there are sudden shifts in what the consumer finds to be trendy.
As Amy Galehouse explains, “One of the issues in growing Christmas trees is that I have to know at least ten to fifteen years in advance, what the consumer wants for a Christmas tree. Up till about ten years ago the preferred tree was a pine, and then it flip flopped to firs.”
Imagine the anxiety of purchasing a farm in the midst of a drought this past summer. Well that’s exactly what Jane Neubauer and her husband did when they went out on a limb and purchased Sugar Pines Farm in Chesterland, Ohio.
Sugar Pines Farm actually fared quite well this past year as they only lost around 16 percent of their seedlings. Neubauer gives all the credit to the resourcefulness of the previous owner, as she explained, “There is a river that runs through the farm and he pumped it out a few times throughout the season in order to irrigate the trees, and I think that helped to save some of the trees.”
This year’s Christmas tree crop will potentially have cosmetic deficiencies as the drought caused a stunting in the growth of the trees. It is very likely that this season trees will lose needles at a much higher rate compared to previous seasons. It may be wise to wait a little bit longer to purchase your tree this season, so the needles will hold their color and stay on the tree through Christmas.
Despite all of the negative impact the drought could potentially have on the long term viability of the Christmas tree market in Northeast Ohio, farmers in the area have maintained a positive outlook on the future.
This isn’t the first time area farmers have dealt with hardship and it won’t be the last. Some farms may wilt away in the future as a result of this year’s drought. But, there will be those that persevere, and with it the Christmas trees will continue to shine brightly thanks to savvy decisions, and a whole lot of luck.