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Christmas tree farms expecting strong season from pent up families

  • FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2015, file photo, Tommy Lawson looks out into rows of Christmas trees as his family browses for their tree at the John T Nieman Nursery in Hamilton, Ohio. For many people, it's hard not to think about the upcoming holidays already. Some folks are holding early Christmas celebrations so they can be with elderly parents outdoors while the weather still allows it. As the holidays approach, the pandemic is forcing people to come up with creative ways to celebrate. Experts say rituals have always been with us and there has always been room for improvisation. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) John Minchillo

  • Customers at Cranston's Christmas Tree farm in Ashfield walk through one of the fields with their cart Sunday, December 10, 2016. Matt Burkhartt

Monitor staff
Published: 11/26/2020 4:25:18 PM

Susan Seidner is making one major change to her Christmas tree operation this year. She’s no longer selling cookies.

Seidner’s family’s Pembroke farm, Donaghey Christmas Tree Farm, is doing away with the annual tradition in the time of COVID-19. This year, they’ll be transitioning to candy canes.

Other than that, though, the business will largely stay the same. Masks and hand sanitizer aside, the customers will show up, they’ll grab their saws, and they’ll head out to get their trees.

And this season, Seidner says, business could be better than ever. 

“We open Saturday the 28th,” she said. “But we have been getting so many calls from people who want to cut now.”

After months of pandemic-driven uncertainty and angst, and amid a rising surge of cases that could prompt a long, home-ridden winter, Christmas tree farmers say interest appears particularly high.

Phones have been ringing constantly. Commercial orders have been flying. And the relatively condensed season – driven by a late Thanksgiving – means demand is likely to be especially acute.

“I think what it is is there are very few activities for families,” Seidner said. “And our activity is outside. And it’s very safe.”

Lane Bockius is feeling the coming rush. Her Hopkinton farm, Crow Valley Farm, has also had “a tremendous amount of people calling” ahead of their opening day. “I’m assuming that people are just really enthusiastic about decorating,” she said.

And Jim Horst, the executive director of the New Hampshire Vermont Christmas Tree Association, says it’s a region-wide trend.

“I think people are dying to get some relief,” said Horst, who owns a Christmas tree farm in Bennington, Vt.

The pandemic has brought about a surge in appreciation for nature, from hiking trails to pond walks, Horst said. That enthusiasm will likely spill over into the tree business, he predicted.

Beyond the cut-your-own sales, Horst says the wholesale market has been “exceptionally strong,” with large orders from retailers selling the trees themselves.

Those purchases, which tend to be from bigger tree farms, are just wrapping up now, giving the rest of the industry a glimpse at what should be a strong season.

Along with high demand comes a tightening supply, Horst said. Eight or nine years ago tree growers were left with a surplus of trees, he said, causing many across both states to reduce the number of trees they planted to compensate. Now, that crop is grown up, and it may mean that there are fewer this year than usual.

That doesn’t mean not everyone’s getting a tree, Horst quickly adds. Just that some might be a little harder to find.

The positive outlook doesn’t negate the effects of the pandemic, though.

Several weeks ago, the Association put on a conference to go over approaches to COVID-19. This weekend, as farms open to the post Thanksgiving rush, most will be following the requisite health guidelines: Hand sanitizer at entrances, masks indoors and disinfecting saws after use.

The Hopkinton store front for Crow Valley farm is already outfitted with plexiglass and sanitizer, Bockius said.

And while COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that outdoor activities with masks and distance are much safer than indoor spread, some, like Seidner, are still navigating how to treat customers.

“I think that we’re all feeling a little uncertain about just the whole issue of social distancing,” she said. “Are people going to gather in these fields? What’s our role? New Hampshire has a mandate, but they don’t have any enforcement of it.”

The expectations for a strong season also come even as the industry prepares to battle bigger forces than COVID-19.

This summer, farms across New England experienced severe drought conditions. For young trees, that kind of event can be devastating, with the effects fully coming home to roost in a decade.

Some of Horst’s fields lost three to five percent, he estimates. Others lost 30% of the crop.

Sometimes the toll of that change isn’t felt for years. A drought in summer 2016 took a toll on a number of trees at the Crow Valley Farm didn’t make its full mark until two years later, Bockius recalled. At that point 400 trees had perished.

And though the effects are absorbable now, more drought years down the line could spell longer-lasting trouble.

Still, this year, the industry is getting ready to sail through.

At Seidner’s Pembroke farm, one tradition will endure: the post sales family dinners. A reminder, she says, that the 2020 Christmas season can still produce glimmers of joy.

“It’s the happiest people,” she said. “It’s a business where everyone is happy. How lucky can you be?”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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