Christmas tree growers head into busy season

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(Host) The rush of the holidays has arrived for some Vermonters. The state’s Christmas tree growers are very busy as VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Tree grower Jim Horst) “I jokingly call this a hobby that got out of hand.”

(Zind) Thirty years ago when Jim Horst was using his PhD in economics to earn a living in Washington, D.C, he decided to plant a few Christmas trees on his family’s dairy farm in Bennington. Today the road past the farm cuts through sloping fields filled with thousands of perfectly shaped Christmas trees.

Each year Horst wholesales about 5,000 of the trees to retail outlets within a hundred miles of his farm. Horst is executive secretary of the New Hampshire-Vermont Christmas Tree Association. He says the 250 members of the group include most of the growers in the two states.

(Horst) “They’re all the way from large growers that sell 10,000-15,000 trees to small retired people that sell a couple of hundred out of their backyard.”

(Zind) Fuel and fertilizer costs, insects and weather related problems all nibble at profits, along with Canadian imports and artificial trees. But Horst says Vermont’s Christmas tree industry is pretty healthy.

Christmas trees play a small role in Vermont’s agricultural economy. Horst says figures are hard to come by, but he estimates the industry accounts for about $10 million in sales annually.

(Horst) “The part of the industry that is growing the most right now is going to the farm and cutting your own tree.”

(Zind) Right next door is another Christmas tree farm. It’s owned by Jim’s cousin, Barry Horst. Unlike Jim’s wholesale-only operation, Barry’s is a cut-your-own business. He caters to people who have made it a family tradition to come to his farm for their Christmas tree. Many come in early October to choose a tree, which they’ll often decorate with personal mementos. They’ll come back to cut it at Christmastime.

(Horst) “A lot of people want to do a bonding thing with the family. I draw people from Massachusetts and I draw a lot of people from Albany. I have customers that come up from New Jersey.”

(Zind) Because he has to please many tastes, Barry Horst sells many different sizes and kinds of trees than his cousin’s wholesale operation. He gets from $28 to $45 for a tree. Wholesale trees go for $20 to $25.

Back at Jim Horst’s farm a crew is running trees through a baler that wraps them with twine to protect them during shipping. A tractor-trailer is due to pick them up shortly. Horst says he has orders for all the trees he’ll harvest this year. But he’ll need to put at least one aside.

(Horst) “I’ve got a 13 year old daughter who’s concerned about that. We may go out and tag one this weekend.”

(Zind) Horst says there aren’t many people getting into the business of growing Christmas trees these days. It takes time to build a profitable business. The trees planted this year won’t be ready for harvest until Christmas of 2012.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Bennington.

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