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Local growers produce affordable, quality trees
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Weather conditions made 2004 a challenging year for the state's Christmas tree growers, but Mississippians should have no problem finding top quality, affordable trees to decorate their homes this holiday season.
Steve Dicke, forestry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said choose-and-cut tree sales reached 100,000 last year in Mississippi. Similar sales are expected this year.
"Christmas tree inventories are higher nationwide than in the past, which will help keep retail prices low and quality high," Dicke said. "For those who enjoy a real Christmas tree, 2004 will be a great year to buy."
Dicke said excessive rains during the late spring and early summer caused trees stress, then the weather turned very dry and trees were stressed again.
Mack Avery, a grower in Lamar County, said the stress made his trees more susceptible to widespread fungus problems, rather than the normal isolated pockets.
"Normally, I just have to do some spot spraying, but this year, it took a pretty thorough effort. That runs the cost of production up, but it won't end up affecting the price of the trees for holiday shoppers," Avery said. "In general, the conditions just suppressed the trees' growth."
In addition to growing for his choose-and-cut sales, Avery also raises Leyland cypress seedlings to sell other Christmas tree growers. Landscape companies also uses these for hedge rows in gated communities and new developments.
"As I approach my 80th birthday, selling seedlings is just a lot easier. There is less maintenance and a quicker return on my investment," Avery said.
During the last decade, many Christmas tree growers have discovered that this crop is very labor intensive and also requires diverse skills. Growers also must be skilled at marketing their product.
Michael May of Chunky learned a lot in 20 years of watching his father's Christmas tree operation, but in the four years since taking over the responsibility for the farm, he has learned even more. He spent his first couple of years increasing the number of trees, but sales in his third year did not meet his expectations.
"I learned an important lesson last year: you can't cut corners in advertising," May said. "It's hard to do it all, but you have to market your trees, too."
May did not experience as many problems from the early-season stresses, but Hurricane Ivan dealt him and many other eastern Mississippi growers a tough blow.
"About 40 percent of my trees had to be straightened back up after Ivan, and some were lost," he said.
May is anticipating a boost in sales this year from "The Polar Express," a new movie starring Tom Hanks and set for release in November.
"From what I've heard, this movie should generate more interest in live Christmas trees, as well as the adventure of going out and cutting one yourself," he said.