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Officials concerned about Christmas tree business in Iowa

BY MEGAN SANCHEZ | DECEMBER 03, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Friday after Thanksgiving, families bundled in scarves and mittens grabbed an axe and some twine in search for the perfect live Christmas tree. Although farmers said they had a fine season this year, there is concern these memories will fade along with the Christmas-tree businesses.

In the past two years, many Iowa farmers have experienced drought. While this does not affect this year’s trees, it wipes away seedlings, which means trees that would be old in five to 10 years do not exist.

Michael Bauer, owner of Timber Creek in the Davenport area, said last year, nearly 90 percent of his seedlings did not survive. This year, however, only 20 percent of his seedlings suffered. He said if farmers lose their crops numerous years in a row, trouble will arise.

“I’m optimistic as long as we are able to grow the trees,” he said. “You really can’t catch up in this business. It just doesn’t work that way. If you were to lose your crop of seedlings for two or three years in a row, that would just be devastating.”

Bauer said one of the only ways to prevent drought damage is irrigation, but this practice is often not an option for farmers because of the expense.

Another issue many growers see is damage from deer. State Horticulturist Mike Bevins said the deer rub their antlers on the trees, causing them to falter.

“Deer have always been a major concern for the Christmas tree program,” he said. “This time of year, Christmas tree growers can’t have hunters because they have customers, but fencing would be terribly expensive.”

In Algona, Iowa, Matthew Clark said his farm has suffered from deer damage. Clark’s Christmas Conifers only plants three acres each year, so every tree counts.

“I lose 10 to 15 trees a year from deer damage,” he said. “[We need to] eliminate a bunch of deer. We have far too many deer in this state.”

Closer to Iowa City in Solon, Handley’s Holiday Hillside Inc. has not seen any effects of the drought. Owner Margaret Handley said this year has been exceptional, like the rest.

“I hope that since our business is so good this year, that the real Christmas trees are coming back,” she said. “I hope that people are working on family memories and traditions by coming to a Christmas tree farm, not only ours but any Christmas tree farm in the state of Iowa.”

While local farmers have been experiencing issues in past years, Rick Dungey, the public-relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association, said he does not think the trees have been negatively affected.

“From what I have heard so far, the harvest went well all over the country,” he said. “There weren’t any major weather impediments. Some places can have really bad storm systems go through, but I haven’t heard anything major like that.

All three planters felt their opening day was the biggest it's ever been. The Friday after Thanksgiving, each farm had record numbers in families attending.

Bauer said opening days were packed, possibly because of Thanksgiving falling later this year. Whatever the reason, he said he is thrilled with the outcome.

“We sold more trees on our first weekend then we’ve ever sold before,” he said. “We ran out of parking. That’s never happened to me before. It was a beautiful weekend.”

While it appears more and more families are choosing to create memories through cutting down a live tree, Bevins said he is worried tree farms may be hard to find in the future.

“Most of the growers [in Iowa] are elderly and will be out of the business in 10 to 15 years down the road,” he said. “We don’t see a lot of young people wanting to go into the business. Christmas-tree growing is a lot of work. It’s not an easy way to make a living. I don’t normally think of Christmas trees as a rarity, but who knows. It may become that way in Iowa, which is a shame.”


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