Keeping it real in the Christmas tree business

The National Christmas Tree Association reported that the cost of purchasing a real Christmas tree this year may come with a 5- to 10-percent higher price tag due to a shortage of the two most popular sized trees after fewer trees were planted in...

Wholesale trees are netted and ready to ship to Capitol Market from May Tree Farms in West Virginia. The demand for locally grown trees is a huge draw for May customers.(Rachel Spencer Gabel/Special to Agweek)

The National Christmas Tree Association reported that the cost of purchasing a real Christmas tree this year may come with a 5- to 10-percent higher price tag due to a shortage of the two most popular sized trees after fewer trees were planted in lean years. Even so, two growers are finding that keeping it real is synonymous with their newfound careers as growers.

Mill Dam Christmas Tree Farm began as a venture that the Steele family in Fredonia, Kan., could enjoy together. Over 1,000 trees later and a barn filled with gifts and treats to complete the experience of purchasing a real tree, Shala Steele has found her place in agriculture quite by chance.

In only their second year in business, the Steele family began growing trees and an agricultural business. While the trees planted had time to mature, the family shipped in trees from Michigan and began incorporating wreaths and garland. As the fledgling business grew, so did the trees. Mill Dam sold their first tree cut from trees they planted this year, an experience Steele said she enjoyed.

Steele said real Christmas trees come with advantages to the environment not found with artificial trees, and the family's growing business is becoming a boon to the small community. As the business grows, Steele is able to hire young people to help shake, net and load trees during peak times, giving back to the community that has supported the business.

As with most agricultural commodities, timing is everything when it comes to Christmas trees. Receiving her Michigan tree shipments early enough to allow time to predrill, stand, and water the trees, as well as create wreaths is key for making sure her customers are satisfied.


"People want to buy a nice tree, a high-end tree that has been kept in water," she said.

In addition to the quality offered, Steele strives to create a fun experience for families, including local, handmade gifts and complimentary warm drinks and cookies.

Steele said the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association welcomed them in 2013, giving them a chance to grow their knowledge after doing their first planting.

"They have been the most awesome group to help people learn," she said. "Some of those people have been running a Christmas tree farm for 30 years and it's neat to talk to those people and get ideas."

The group meets in January to reflect upon the busy sales season recently completed and again during the summer. The summer meeting is filled with discussion and education about pests and disease, maintenance and care. Steele has found the group incredibly useful and has since been elected to the board of directors, providing a fresh voice at the table. The Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association represents the state's 34 growers and the state's contribution to the over 25 million Christmas trees sold annually in the United States.

Callie Taylor of Petersburg, W. V., grew up on a Hereford operation that also operates six broiler houses contracted to Pilgrim's Pride. The already diverse operation added Christmas trees to the business four years ago when her father purchased a Christmas tree farm with the intention of selling the trees and eventually utilizing the pasture.

"That has obviously changed," she said. "We're planting 8,000 trees a year, and we plan to keep it going."

Taylor's operation, May Tree Farm, is the largest in West Virginia with 75,000 trees growing. Though the differences between livestock and Christmas tree production are formidable, the tree farm tapped into Taylor's interest in marketing and agriculture.


Taylor spends her summers exhibiting cattle, and in the fall her attention turns to Christmas trees, an industry she said is particularly varied with retail and wholesale aspects.

"There is a West Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association, and my dad, who is 47 years old, is the youngest member of that association," she said. "Most of the growers in the state are experienced and have helped us. The previous owner of the farm, though, was a genius."

The late Larry May, who started the farm, took meticulous notes about all aspects of the business.

"It's mesmerizing to see the work he did," she said. "He built what we call a living barn. It has trees planted strategically in line to make a shaded area. If you walk in, you will not be hit by rain or sunlight." The living barn is so efficient, that they are able to utilize the shelter to house wholesale trees to be loaded for shipping.

May Tree Farms is a regular contributor to the Capitol Market in Charleston, W.V., the state's capital. The farm's reputation for West Virginia-grown trees is a draw for urban customers at the Market. The desire for locally grown trees, she said, has prompted some customers to travel four hours from Charleston to the farm for the experience of choosing a tree on site.

Much like the Steele family, the Taylors provide a fun, family-focused experience, complete with a gift shop and refreshments. The family has maintained the farm's original two employees, and the harvest crew works seasonally and creates wreaths and swags on site for customers.

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