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More consumers seek fresh Christmas trees

By Linda Breazeale

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Christmas tree growers are facing a new and welcomed challenge in the coming years: keeping up with the increasing demand for their fresh products.

Steve Dicke, forestry specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said growers have been surprised by the recent surge of interest in live trees.

“Last year saw a 21-percent increase in sales nationally, and $32 million were sold nationwide,” Dicke said. “It wasn't too many years back that we would have been happy with $24 million worth of trees sold.”

Even better news for growers is the fact that people under 29 years of age tend to buy more real trees than fake trees, Dicke said, opening the door to further market expansion in the years to come.

For Mississippi's growers, the 2006 season was not much help for that future.

“The substantial drought killed more younger trees than it did older ones, so there are some concerns about having enough trees in the future,” Dicke said. “There is always the opportunity to make up for the losses next year. The good news is that most have recovered from their 2005 hurricane tilts.”

Dicke said most Mississippi growers do not irrigate their Christmas trees. The dry conditions may have jeopardized young, vulnerable trees, but they were helpful in the control of insects, diseases and weeds.

“The older trees are looking pretty good because of the lack of insect and disease pressure this year,” the specialist said.

Newton County grower Michael May said he lost about 20 percent of his seedlings this year, compared to up to 4 percent in a normal summer. Replacing lost seedlings this fall will add to his production costs.

“We purchased some irrigation equipment this year to try saving what was left, and that helped,” May said. “Irrigation will be worth (the cost) in the future, especially considering the time it takes to replant.”

May expressed the need to have more trees to meet the tremendous demand.

“The 7- to 9-foot trees are usually the most popular, and we need more of those,” May said. “Taller trees are becoming more popular as people build homes with higher ceilings.”

Dicke said the number of growers across the state is declining as the population moves from rural to urban areas. Growers need a combination of talents: first as farmers and second as marketers of their trees.

“Five to 10 acres would be the ideal size for a Christmas tree farm. If you do things right, you can make a profit, but you also can lose your shirt if you don't do things right,” Dicke said. “It is hard to recover trees if they are not properly cared for.”

The Southern Christmas Tree Association lists 21 farms in Mississippi and 66 members. Dicke said many of those growers will be taking part in a national effort to provide live Christmas trees to military personnel overseas and to stateside families. The program, called Trees for Troops, is expected to yield 12,000 trees from 49 sites in 27 states.

For more information on growing Christmas trees, contact the local county Extension office. To locate the nearest choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm, go online to http://www.southernchristmastrees.org.

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Released: Nov. 16, 2006
Contact: Dr. Steve Dicke, (601) 857-2284

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