It was a banner year for Iowa’s 100 or so Christmas tree farms, but some producers worry the future may not be as bright.
It’s been a busy month for the Wickiup Hill Tree Farm near Toddville in Eastern Iowa. Operations manager Tim Andrews says they sold out of trees almost two weeks ago, but the work continues year round.
“This year the weather was warm, so it was enjoyable," he says. "Some years it’s downright cold, the opposite of it is during the summertime when we’re shearing the trees, the heat index can be 110 or 115, so it’s not for the weak or faint of heart.”
Andrews is president of the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association. He explains most farms in the state are between three and eight acres in size and sell trees by the choose-and-harvest method
“And you look through tree after tree after tree and you find the one that fits your needs and what you want in a tree," Andrews says. "You cut it down as a family and the parents, usually the father will take one end of the tree and a child will take the other and as they’re coming out of the field there’s a shared bond there.”
According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, nearly 40,000 Christmas trees are harvested across the state each season. Andrews says many customers return year after year.
“You can’t get that by going to the local stores and picking up a tree outside the front door or dragging a fake tree out of the attic," he says. "That’s not to belittle those folks because they that do that mostly for convenience, but after the first time they cut that first tree they’re hooked for life and that’s something that’s passed on from generation to generation.”
Driving to a tree farm and harvesting a tree is a ritual for the Block family of Cedar Falls. Misty Block, her husband and five kids took less than 10 minutes to find theirs at the Kris Kringle Tree Farm just north of town.
“Well that was what I grew up so it’s carrying on the tradition, plus we like the smell too, it’s something we’ve always done," she says.
The Kris Kringle Tree Farm is covered with hundreds of lush, green trees. But that wasn’t the case back in 2012 when a devastating drought wiped out seedlings here and all across the Midwest. Owner Danny Moulds says just like more traditional farmers, tree growers live and die by swings in the weather.
“Sometimes we have great growth like this year, so we gained a little bit, but then if we have a drought or that heat in the summer can really slow some things down," he says.
It takes between six and 12 years to grow a Christmas tree before it’s ready to be sold. Moulds explains that’s why the drought four years ago may result in a shortage of trees down the road
“That’s where the 2012 harvest will be in that point, because those are the trees we needed to have, so it’s gonna be a little roller coaster and that’s just how it goes," he says. "Sometimes it’s too wet in the spring and drowns out the seedlings, it’s Mother Nature, what do you do? You just roll with it and plan for next season.”
At 35 years old Moulds is by far the youngest of Iowa’s producers. Most of the others are in their 60s and 70s. That’s a concern for Growers President Tim Andrews.
“If I had a crystal ball or if I could get my Christmas wish, it would simply be to have a younger generation to see the value of what we’re trying to provide and they would pick up the baton and carry it into the next generation," he says.
Although the industry is an aging one, a new National Christmas Tree promotion board is in its infancy. It was established in 2015 by U.S Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The 12 member board’s mission is to enhance the value and demand for cut trees through promotion, education and research.