Christmas tree sales remain strong

BY BEN MARKS | DECEMBER 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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As they wrap up their post-Thanksgiving opening weekend, Christmas-tree farmers across eastern Iowa report healthy harvests.

But, farmers say, poor weather over the last few years may damage future tree crops.

“You may have the customers, but you don’t have the product to sell them,” said Sarah Handley, family member of Handley’s Holiday Hillside, a tree farm near Solon. “There’s no way to catch up; you can’t plant twice as many trees because you’ve already lost a whole year of growing.”

Because of floods and droughts over the past few years, come 2019, Christmas trees in Iowa might be in short supply.

“Seasonal weather patterns can be very tough on the seedlings when you first plant them,” said Rick Dungey, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. “But once seeds are in the field for a year or two years they’re a little more stable.”

According to data from the National Christmas Tree Association, real trees are consistently in much higher demand than artificial ones.

In 2013 alone, 33 million Christmas trees were sold compared with 14.7 million artificial trees.

Danny Moulds, the owner of Kris Kringle’s Trees near Cedar Falls, said his farm is still recovering from past floods as opposed to cold weather last winter.

“We experienced no winter damage here; most everything pulled out,” he said. “We’re more suffering from the floods of 2008, when we lost 3,000 to 5,000 trees.”

This loss, Moulds said, was approximately 15 percent of his trees.

Christmas trees typically take at least seven years to reach maturation, so the newly planted trees Moulds lost in 2008 would have just been reaching harvestable size this year.

The losses led to a dip in his profits.

Other farmers also suffered tree loss because of the flooding, but most agreed it was the 2012 summer drought that really hurt them.

“December of 2012, we didn’t even open,” said Dwight Krueger, the owner of D&J Tree Farm near Nichols, Iowa. “We lost a lot, anywhere from small seedlings to 8-foot trees because our tree farm is on sandy soil, and we’re unable to irrigate.”

Krueger said he has sold trees since 1991 and that was the first year he never opened.

State Climatologist Harry Hillaker said 2012 was the worst year for tree growth.

“We had relatively dry weather but also excessive heat for much of that spring and summer,” he said.

Carol Pierce, a co-owner of Honey Creek Timbers near Morning Sun, Iowa, said around three-fourths of seeds they planted died, and she and her husband discussed irrigation, something they’d never had to worry about before.

Farmers said, however, last winter things started to look up.

Krueger said the especially cold weather wasn’t an issue for even their newly planted trees, and most made it through unscathed, in part because of the nice weather that followed.

“Last winter wasn’t a problem at all,” he said. “Last winter, it was cold, but we had lots of spring rain.”

Pierce said she also credits a successful planting season to the weather.

“This year is a great year for us,” she said. “We had a lot of rain, and we planted more than we usually do, and they’re surviving.”

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