Drought doesn’t affect cost of fresh-cut trees — at least not this year

Carrie Miller of Toledo looks  for a tree Tuesday with the help of Dick Raden at Helsel’s Christmas Tree Lot. Growers say the summer drought didn’t hurt mature trees, but the seedlings were affected.
Carrie Miller of Toledo looks for a tree Tuesday with the help of Dick Raden at Helsel’s Christmas Tree Lot. Growers say the summer drought didn’t hurt mature trees, but the seedlings were affected.

Snow may be lacking, but consumers who prefer a real Christmas tree over artificial ones will find plenty of choices in the Toledo area this holiday season. Prices will be similar to those of last year.

“It really varies from location and lot, but we don’t really expect people will see price increases out there. It’s still been competitive, and the fresh-cut trees aren’t increasing, so choose-and-cut operations will not be in position to raise prices,” said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, whose members run many of the fresh-cut tree lots in the Toledo area.

But like their corn-growing brethren, Christmas tree growers across the Midwest were hit hard this year by the drought, which damaged seedlings planted in the spring. The summer drought won’t affect prices this year, but seven years from now it is possible the overall Christmas tree selection won’t be as large or varied, and prices could spike in some states.

However, this year “prices are pretty much the same as last year,” said Dick Raden, who helps run the fresh-cut tree lot at the dormant Netty’s restaurant on Monroe Street and Sylvania Avenue. The lot is operated by June Helsel, a Christmas tree grower in northern Michigan.

Mr. Raden said popular 8-foot to 10-foot tall Douglas fir trees are selling for about $65, same as last year. “Most of the buying has been in the 8-to-10-foot range,” he added. Depending on the type, a 6-to-7-foot tree will cost about $40 at the June Helsel lot.

Ms. Gray said fresh-cut tree lot operators always compete with area home improvement stores that buy in bulk from wholesale growers, so prices must remain competitive from year to year.

Locally, Lowe’s home improvement stores were selling 6-to-7-foot Fraser firs for $35 and 6-to-7-foot Scotch pine trees for $18. At Home Depot, 6-to-8-foot Fraser firs were $30 while 6-to-8-foot Scotch Pines were $20.

A concern this year was whether the summer’s drought would drive up prices. Growers say that the dry conditions didn’t damage this year’s harvest, but seedlings that are expected to be harvested in 2019 or 2020 were devastated.

“Drought doesn’t really impact fully grown trees,” Ms. Gray said. “Most growers have the ability to irrigate, and most did, otherwise the losses would have been exceptionally high. There have been a few reports from tree farms in mid-Michigan that did have losses attributed to the drought.”

However, the worst damage was in states farther west, such as Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, Ms. Gray said.

Tree growers in those states will have the next seven years to make up those losses, but if replanting efforts aren’t fully successful, it could mean a shortage of wholesale trees in 2019. That could drive prices up then, Ms. Gray said.

“What will happen is growers will plant more trees next year. They will shear some trees to bring some growth along faster. It’s a little more work for the growers, but that could help,” she said.

At one of the Toledo area’s most popular choose-and-cut tree farms, the Whitehouse Christmas Tree Farm, grower Richard “Duke” Wheeler lost 45 to 50 percent of his seedling crop to the drought. He normally plants 5,000 seedlings per year.

He plans to plant 10,000 seedlings next spring, and he hopes there isn’t a drought repeat.

“I’ll have to spend more to get caught up, but that’s OK. There’s really no profit in a choose-and-cut operation. We just do it because we like it,” he said. “But wholesale operations, the drought could have an effect on them down the road,” Mr. Wheeler added.

Thus, prices at his tree farm are unchanged. A Scotch pine is $6 a foot, a Douglas fir $8 a foot, a Spruce pine $10 a foot, and a Fraser fir is $11 a foot, Mr. Wheeler said.

Debra Yeager, whose husband, Carl, is president of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association, said the drought effects in Ohio were uneven. Some operations were barely touched, but other members lost much of their seedling crop, she said. The Yeagers are co-owners of the Storeyland Christmas Tree Farm in Burghill, Ohio.

“If you’re going to lose out, [seedlings] is where to lose because you don’t have as much invested in them. It’s a seven-year process,” she said. “As far as the mature trees, they’re been pretty good across the state.”

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.